Translated by Shinji Takaramura
Okinawa Travel Guide: Discover Tropical Japan In The Ryukyu Islands
Okinawa is Japan's southernmost prefecture, consisting of 160 islands. This article will introduce sightseeing information, famous spots and local foods, as well as cultural notes on this exciting, tropical destination.
Written by Mayu
Okinawa - Japan's Southernmost Prefecture
Okinawa, the southernmost prefecture in Japan, consists of 160 islands including Okinawa Island. Most islands have a large number of white sand beaches, and over seven million people visit this prominent Asian resort every year.
The distance from Tokyo to Naha, Okinawa's capital city, is about 2,100 kilometers. Naha is located 1,900 kilometers away from Beijing, and 1,300 kilometers from Seoul, a two to three hours travel by a direct flight. Naha is also 750 kilometers from Taiwan, about 90 minutes on a direct flight, which makes Okinawa an exotic resort for the people in Asia.
Unlike Honshu (the main Japanese island), which is located in the temperate zone, Okinawa is in the tropical zone. With its warm climate, this area is famous for producing tropical fruits such as pineapples and sugarcane.
When Honshu was ruled by the samurai and the Emperor, the Ryukyuan Kingdom governed Okinawa, developing its own unique culture. Its capital, Shurijo Castle, is now designated as a World Heritage site. The locals used the Ryukyu dialect (‘uchinaaguchi’), and simple words like ‘mensore’ (welcome) and ‘haitai’ (hello) still remains.
Traditional crafts such as the colorful Bingata (resist-dyed cloth) and the Ryukyu glass, performing arts such as the Eisa and the Ryukyu dance, have all developed in Okinawa as well, adding to its fascinating appeal.
Table of Contents:
1. Okinawa Area Guide
2. Weather in Okinawa
3. How to Get to Okinawa
4. Transportation in Okinawa
5. Okinawa's Main Sightseeing Spots
6. Recommended Beaches in Okinawa
7. Recommended Travel Plans for Okinawa Island
8. Events in Okinawa
9. Recommended Activities
10. Okinawa Souvenirs
11. Hotels in Okinawa
12. Okinawa's Cuisine
13. The Local Dialect
14. Travel Tips for Okinawa
Okinawa Area Guide
Okinawa Island is the largest of the 160 islands in the prefecture, with its capital city being Naha. This island may have been inhabited as early as 32,000 years ago, but was ultimately unified by the Ryukyu Kingdom.
The Ryukyu Kingdom was an independent kingdom that united and ruled most of the Ryukyu Islands (from Okinawa Island to the Amami Islands in Kagoshima and the Sakishima Islands near Taiwan) from the 15th-19th centuries. This kingdom was a key player in the maritime trade of Southeast and East Asia, trading Japanese goods including silver, swords, lacquerware, etc to China and other ports, but was invaded by Tokugawa shogunate forces and subjugated in the 1600s, although it retained most of its own control until the 19th century.
The following are some of the famous spots in its northern, central and southern areas.
Okinawa Island: Northern Area
This area includes Nago City, the districts of Kunigami and Kunigami village. Sightseeing spots such as the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, Emerald Beach, and Nago Pineapple Park, where visitors can enjoy the sea and special products of Okinawa, are located in this area.
Nine municipalities, such as Okinawa City, Uruma City and Ginowan City form this area, which is full of attractive beaches and capes. Manzamo, where visitors can enjoy the wonderful ocean view from the top of a high cliff, and Ryukyu Mura, a sightseeing spot to experience Ryukyu culture, performing arts and the natural environment, are located in the central area.
The southern area, which consists of Naha City, Itoman City and Nanjo City, is the main sightseeing area with many cultural and historic sites. Shurijo and the Ryukyu Glass Village are both located in this area.
The Islands of Okinawa
There are 160 islands, large and small, in Okinawa Prefecture, and 49 of them are inhabited. Ishigakijima, Iriomote, Yonaguni, Miyakojima, Kumejima, and Kudakajima are well known as resort islands, and are also famous for their beautiful beaches, unique ecosystems and animals such as the Iriomote wildcat. All of these islands can be accessed via Okinawa's main island, either by plane, ferry, or even ox cart!
The Yaeyama Islands - Ishigakijima
Ishigakijima island is the second largest of the Yaeyama islands and serves as a business and transportation hub, as it where the New Ishigaki Airport is located. Rather than man-made tourism areas, Ishigakijima is best known for its natural beauty and scenic spots.
Over 90% of Iriomote is covered with a subtropical primeval forest. Thanks to the abundant forest, several protected species of flora and fauna, like the Iriomote wildcat call this island home. There are plenty of eco tours featuring trekking, canoeing, and even sea kayaking plus an ox cart tour that runs along the beaches from Iriomote to Yubujima too.
A mere 100 km from Taiwan, Yonaguni is Japan's westernmost border island, which means that on clear days, you can see the silhouette of Taiwan in the distance. Cruising along and viewing the landscape created by the steep cliffs around the island, diving and snorkeling as you explore the mysterious historic ruins on the bottom of the ocean, plus gazing out at the sunset at "the end of Japan" are just some of the things you can enjoy here.
Miyakojima island is best known for Sunayama Beach, although the entire island itself is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful in all of Okinawa. It is connected to three of the other Miyako islands via bridges.
A popular diving resort island, Kumejima is well known for its textiles, called Kumejima-tsumugi which have been recognized as an Important Intangible Cultural Property, and for Kumesen Awamori, an Okinawan sake as well. There is an airport, the Kumejima Airport, here, as well as ferries from the other islands.
Located only 15 minutes by ferry from the main island of Okinawa, Kudaka Island is one of the holiest places in southern Japan, where several sites are off-limits to outsiders. Said to have been the first island created by Amamikiyo, the creator goddess of the Ryukyus, Kudaka is also known for its numerous folk traditions and unique culture.
folk traditions and culture that thrive even in the present day. Including the Izaiho festival held every 12 years in the Year of the Horse, a number of festivals and sacred rituals are performed in their original forms on the island. The island can easily be explored by bicycle, and has a great number of stunning beaches plus traditional Okinawan houses too.
For more information on traveling to Okinawa's outer islands, please take a look at How To Reach Okinawa's Outer Islands - Ishigaki, Yonaguni, And Others.
Weather in Okinawa
The weather in Okinawa is one of its most attractive points, as mild to tropical weather lasts all year round. Despite the sometimes severe winters the rest of Japan faces, in Okinawa, you will be able to spend your winter vacations in a short sleeve shirt, or with a light jacket at the most. The average temperature is 23.1 degrees Celsius, the highest in Japan. It rarely drops under 10 degrees Celsius, even in winter. Sunlight, especially the UV (ultraviolet) rays are harsh, so visitors should have sunscreen, sunglasses and hats ready.
The beaches in Okinawa open from March to April, much earlier than those in the Honshu area. The temperature during that season is about 20 degrees Celsius, so it is the perfect time to go swimming. From May to October, typhoons often strike Okinawa, especially in the month of August. Flights will sometimes be canceled in case of typhoons, so be careful when making plans for this season. August is the month when the temperature frequently rises above 30 degrees Celsius. It rains often, creating a sultry atmosphere. Be sure to take adequate clothing, and lots of sunscreen along with you.
For more about the weather in Okinawa all year long, please take a look at Okinawa's Weather And The Best Clothes For Your Trip.
How to Get to Okinawa
From Narita Airport to Okinawa Island
From How To Sleep In Haneda's International Passenger Terminal
Various airlines, such as Vanilla Air, Jetstar Japan, Peach Aviation and ANA, operate more than eight direct flights a day to Naha Airport.
The one way ticket ranges from 12,000 to 30,000 yen, and the flight takes about three hours.
From Haneda Airport
ANA, JAL, and Skymark Airlines fly a total of about 30 flights a day from 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. The flight takes approximately two and a half hours, the one way tickets ranging from 13,790 to 44,090 yen. For those who want to save on the traveling expenses, check the early reservation tickets offered by Skymark Airlines.
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From Beijing, Seoul and Taipei
From Beijing Capital International Airport, there are four flights a week, which takes about three hours. More than nine flights a day take off from Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport at Taipei, and the flight time is one and a half hours. There are eight flights a day from Incheon International Airport near Seoul, which takes about two hours.
From Naha Airport to Okinawa's Sightseeing Spots
There are bus services to various sightseeing spots from the airport, so it is very convenient for visitors. There is also a large number of taxis waiting, and the basic fare is relatively lower than in other prefectures, so that is another option.
Access to Other Islands
Besides the main island of Okinawa, there are many other great hidden away beaches and resorts to be enjoyed on the outer islands, four of the most popular being Ishigaki, one of the Yaeyama Islands, Yonaguni, Iriomotejima, and the Miyako Archipelago's Miyakojima. If you wish to enjoy the beautiful ocean, clear skies and stunning natural wonders, pay a visit to the other islands.
To Ishigaki Island
Ishigakijima is one of the islands which can be reached only by an airplane. There are direct flights from Naha and Haneda, as well as other airports.
To Miyakojima Island
Like Ishigakijima, Miyakojima is another island which can be reached only by an airplane. There are direct flights not only from Naha, but Haneda and Kansai Airports as well.
To Yonaguni Island
Take the direct flight from Naha Airport to Yonaguni Airport. From Ishigakijima, take the direct flight to Yonaguni Airport, or use the ferryboat.
To Iriomote Island
From Ishigaki take the high-speed boat or the ferryboat. They both leave from the Rito Terminal, which also serves other islands as well.
To get more insight and helpful links about island hopping from Okinawa, please see How To Reach Okinawa's Outer Islands - Ishigaki, Yonaguni, And Others.
Transportation in Okinawa
Bus service covers most parts of Okinawa Island. Visitors should use the sightseeing bus which runs on fixed routes. The fare for adults ranges from 4900 yen to 6000 yen, and it serves the main sightseeing spots such as the Shurijo and Himeyuri-no-Toh War Memorial.
There is also a one-day bus passport which is valid in Naha City. The fare is 660 yen for adults and 330 yen for children. The passport is sold at various information booths operated by Naha Bus.
The monorail operated by Okinawa Urban Monorail runs between Naha Airport and Shurijo. It is also known as the "Yui Rail" among the Naha citizens. There are special tickets, such as the one-day ticket and two-days ticket, which are valid for 24 hours and 48 hours after the purchase, respectively. The tickets also can be used for discounts at various sightseeing spots. The fare for 24 hours is 700 yen for adults and 350 yen for children. The 48 hours ticket fare is 1200 yen for adults and 600 yen for children. These special tickets are sold at ticket machines and booths.
Taxi, Rent-a-car and Rent-a-cycle
Taxis, rental cars and rental bicycles are also available in Okinawa. The sightseeing spots are spread out over the island, and the number of buses are lower when compared to Tokyo. So if you have an International Driver’s License, a rental car might come in handy.
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Okinawa's Main Sightseeing Spots
The following are some of the recommended spots to visit in Okinawa.
1. Shurijo Castle
Shurijo is the castle of the Ryukyuan Kingdom, built in the 14th century. It was destroyed in the Second World War, and reconstructed afterwards.
The original walls and foundation of the castle are designated as a component of the World Heritage site, the ‘Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu’.
Address: Okinawa, Naha, Shurikinjo-cho 1−2
2. Churaumi Aquarium
The Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium is located in northeastern part of Okinawa Island. ‘Churaumi’ in Ryukyu dialect stands for ‘beautiful sea.’ The aquarium is famous for the massive tank, the third largest in the world, where whale sharks and manta rays swim, as well as its incredible shark research center, manatee and sea turtle exhibits. Tickets are 1850 yen for adults, 1230 yen for high school students, and 610 yen for junior high and elementary school age children. For more information on tickets, please see the following articles.
Address: Okinawa, Kunigami district, Motobu-cho, Ishikawa 424 (Inside Ocean Expo Park)
RyukyuMura is a theme park located in Onna-son. Visitors can enjoy all kinds of activities related to Okinawa culture, such as making a shisa, which is a traditional craft. They can also harvest sugarcanes, and make sata andagi, an Okinawa snack. Taking photographs wearing the traditional nibichi costume is also popular.
Address: Okinawa, Kunigami district, Onna-son, Yamada 1130
4. Remains of Nakijin-gusuku
The remains of Nakijin-gusuku are located at the former site of Hokuzan-o's castle. He was the king of Hokuzan, a dynasty that preceded Ryukyuan Kingdom in the 14th century. This is also a World Heritage site. The Nakijin-gusuku Wedding, a wedding ceremony with the bridal pair wearing the traditional garments, is also popular.
Address: Okinawa, Kunigami district, Nakijin-son, Imadomari 5101
Zanpa-misaki (Cape Zanpa) is the westernmost cape in Okinawa Island, and due to its location, is a place where the sun sets last in the prefecture. A 30 meters-high cliff stretches for two kilometers, and the visitors can enjoy a great view.
Address: Okinawa, Nakagami district, Yomitan-son, Uza 1861
Kokusai-dori is the street that stretches for 1.6 kilometers, from the intersection located north of the prefectural government to the Asato-sansaro (three-forked road). Restaurants and souvenir shops are lined up along the street, making this area great sightseeing destinations.
7. Ryukyu Glass Village
At the Ryukyu Glass Village, a handmade glass arts factory in Itoman City, visitors can participate in workshops of making Ryukyu glass.
Address: Okinawa, Itoman city, Fukuji 169
Manzamo, located in Onna-son, is a great ocean viewing spot on top of a coral cliff.
Address: Okinawa, Kunigami district, Onna-son, Onna
9. Bridge to Happiness
Ganju-eki Nanjo, a tourist facility in Nanjo City, is a ‘michi no eki’ (roadside station). It is a complex consisting of a parking lot, rest stop and a marketplace. Even though it is called an eki (station), there are no trains. The "Bridge to Happiness," located at the back of this facility, is said to be a place with mystical powers.
Address: Okinawa, Nanjo city, Chinen-kudeken 541
10. Nago Pineapple Park
Nago Pineapple Park is a pineapple-themed park in Nago City, where visitors can stroll through the pineapple field, or sample the products.
Address: Okinawa, Nago, Biimata 1195
11. Okinawa Fruitsland
Okinawa Fruitsland is a tropical fruits-themed park in Nago City. Mangos and bananas are planted in this park, and the cafe offers sweets made using various tropical fruits.
Address: Okinawa, Nago, Biimata 1220-71
Sefa-Utaki is the ancient ritual site of the Ryukuan Kingdom, now a World Heritage site.
Address: Okinawa, Nanjo city, Chinen-kudeken 270-1
Recommended Beaches in Okinawa
There are many beautiful beaches on Okinawa's islands. If you wish to enjoy swimming or other marine sports, try the man-made beaches, which are equipped with all the amenities. On the other hand, the natural beaches are the place to enjoy the great view. For a comprehensive look at the beaches in this area of Japan, take a look at A Guide To Okinawa's 22 Beautiful Beaches.
Okinawa Island Northern Area: Three Best Beaches
1. Emerald Beach
Emerald Beach, true to its name, boasts a beautiful emerald sea. After visiting the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, drop by this beach, which is located nearby.
Address: Okinawa prefecture, Kunigami district, Motobu-cho, Ishikawa 424 (Inside Ocean Expo Park)
2. 21st Century Forest Beach
This beach with the stunning white sands is located at Nago City. Visitors can also enjoy barbecue and beach volleyball.
Address: Okinawa, Nago city, Miyazato 2-1-25 (Inside 21st Century Forest Park)
3. Sesoko Beach
This natural beach, located on Sesoko Island, can be reached by car from Okinawa Island. It is also famous as a spot to view the sunset.
Address: Okinawa, Kunigami district, Motobu-cho, Sesoko 5750
Central Area: Three Best Beaches
1. Tropical Beach
Located in Ginowan City, this beach has locker rooms equipped with coin-operated lockers and showers. Visitors can also enjoy barbecues.
Address: Okinawa, Ginowan city, Mashiki 4-2-1 (Inside Ginowan Kaihin Park)
2. Nishihara Marine Park
This man-made beach, located in the Nishihara area, not only has locker rooms complete with coin-operated lockers and showers, but kiosks as well. Visitors can enjoy marine sports, barbecues, picnic, baseball and soccer.
Address: Okinawa, Nakagami district, Nishihara-cho, Agarizaki 17
3. Zanpa Beach
This beach is located in the village of Yomitan. It is relatively small, but with the white sands, visitors can enjoy a great view.
Address: Okinawa, Nakagami district, Yomitan-son, Uza 1933
Southern Area: The Two Best Beaches
1. Meebaru Beach
This natural beach is located south of Nanjo City, and it takes only 40 minutes by car from the Naha Airport to reach it.
Address: Okinawa, Nanjo, Tamagusuku-hyakuna 1599
2. Naminoue Beach at Uminoue Umisora Park
It takes only 10 minutes by car from the Naha Airport to Naminoue Beach, located in Naha City. Visitors can enjoy marine sports such as snorkeling and diving.
Address: Okinawa, Naha, Tsuji 3-3-1
The Best Four Beaches on Other Islands
1. Kuura Sunset Beach
Kuura Sunset Beach, with its white sands, clear sea and coral reefs, is the prominent beach on Ishigaki Island.
Address: Okinawa, Ishigaki city, Hirakubo 234-323
2. Sunayama Beach
Sunayama Beach, located in Miyakojima, is known for its natural bridge-shaped arch, which was created by the upheaval of the corals.
Address: Okinawa, Miyakojima, Hirara-nikadori 705
3. Yonaha Maehama Beach
Yonaha Maehama Beach in Miyakojima is known as the "best white beach in the Orient," stretching for seven kilometers.
Address: Okinawa, Miyakojima, Shimoji-yonaha
4. Romance Road
This is one of the few paved roads on the Kudaka Island. At the rest stop, visitors can enjoy a fantastic view of the clear, blue sea.
Address: Okinawa, Nanjo city, Chinen-kudaka
Recommended Travel Plans for Okinawa Island
If you wish to visit the main sightseeing spots in Okinawa, take your time to visit each area in a day.
First Day (Northern Area): Churaumi Aquarium, Emerald Beach, Nago Pineapple Park
Second Day (Central Area): Manzamo, RyukyuMura
Third Day (Southern Area): Shurijo, Ryukyu Glass Village, Kokusai-dori
Events in Okinawa
Okinawa is Japan's southernmost prefecture, so annual events such as ohanami (cherry blossom viewing) and beach openings start from here. The traditional Eisa dance festival is also popular with visitors.
Late January (Ohanami)
Sakura (cherry blossoms) start blooming across Japan beginning from Okinawa, and the local ohanami is held in January. The sakura in Okinawa is called kanhi-zakura. It has a distinctive deep pink color, and is different from the somei-yoshino type, which can be seen in Honshu.
Late January to March (Whale Watching)
April (Beach Opening)
Eisa is a type of Bon-odori dance performed in Okinawa, from July 13 to 15. It is an event to send off the spirits of family ancestors who have come to visit at this time. The sight of the dancers wearing traditional costumes and striking the drums is really impressive.
If you visit this area at the time of the Eisa Festival, don't miss it. Also, there is an Eisa performance held twice a day every day at RyukyuMura.
In the winter, illuminations are displayed at various sites, such as the Toyosaki Beach Park, Okinawa Outlet Mall Ashibinaa, Palette Kumoji and Okinawa Zoo and Museum.
Recommended Activities in Okinawa
At theme parks such as the RyukyuMura, visitors can wear the native dress, which is different from the traditional Japanese kimono, and is made using vivid colors like red, yellow and blue. It will become a nice memory of the visit.
Souvenirs from Okinawa
As a region with its own distinctive culture, history and dialect, the souvenirs you can find in Okinawa are very different from those in other areas of Japan. Here are some of our most recommended souvenirs from Okinawa.
Other exciting souvenirs and recommended shops can be found in Popular Souvenirs From Okinawa: From Sweets To Decorations And Sake.
Recommended Resort Hotels in Okinawa
Renaissance Okinawa Resort
All the guests of this hotel are welcomed with a view of the ocean from their rooms, along with a private beach. The guests can enjoy various marine sports throughout the year.
Address: Okinawa, Kunigami district, Onna-son, Yamada 3425-2
Kanucha Bay Hotel and Villas
This large hotel stands facing the Kanucha Bay. Guests here can enjoy golf, cycling and jogging in the grounds.
Address: Okinawa, Nago, Abu 156-2
Okinawa Marriott Resort and Spa
Okinawa Marriott Resort and Spa is a luxurious hotel boasting a garden pool. It is located near the Kariyushi Beach.
Address: Okinawa, Nago, Kise 1490-1
Beach Hotel Sunshine
Beyond the beach, guests can enjoy the view of the Taketomi Island and Iriomote Island from this hotel. There is an open-air bath on the top floor, and the sunset view from the bath is something special.
Address: Okinawa, Ishigaki, Arakawa 2484
The Shigira consists of 10 private villas with a Jacuzzi and an ocean view. Guests can also enjoy golf, fine food and beauty treatments.
Address: Okinawa, Miyakojima, Ueno-shinzato 1405-3
Shigira Bayside Suite ALLAMANDA
The guestrooms of this luxurious hotel are equipped with Jaccuzis and pools. Guests can also enjoy marine sports such as snorkeling and diving, or taste Ryukyu cuisine in the restaurant.
Address: Okinawa, Miyakojima, Ueno-shinzato 926-25
Miyakojima Tokyu Hotel and Resorts
This resort hotel faces the Yonaha Maehama Beach. The guests can leisurely view the white beach from the expansive, clean guestrooms.
Address: Okinawa, Miyakojima, Shimoji-yonaha 914
Other Hotels In Okinawa
There are also budget hotels and guesthouses in Okinawa.
Accommodations in Naha
While most of the hotel rates are priced below 10,000 yen, the rates for hotels offering a higher standard of rooms and services, such as ANA Crowne Plaza Okinawa Harborview and Naha Tokyu REI Hotel, range from 20,000 to 40,000 yen per stay.
Accommodations in Ishigaki
Accommodations in Miyakojima
Budget hotels such as the Newport Business Hotel, Hotel Southerncoast Miyakojima and Hotel Peace Island Miyakojima offer rates ranging from 4000 yen to 7000 yen, which is cheaper compared to Naha City.
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In ancient times, Okinawa was under the influence of China. Since the United States of America governed this area after the war, the food culture has developed under the influence of both countries.
Here are some recommended dishes to try in Okinawa.
These noodles are made from mostly wheat flour and are thicker than an ordinary soba noodle, while the soup is made from simple, Japanese-style broth. There are many restaurants serving Okinawan Soba, so it may be fun to compare them.
‘Chanpuru’ means ‘jumble’ in the Ryukyu dialect. This is a famous Okinawa dish, with goya (bitter melon), tofu (bean curd) and eggs all fried together.
This is an dish using vinegared pigs' ears. In Chinese cooking, it is called the ‘ear of the wild boar.’
Awamori and Kusu
Awamori is a local spirit made from rice. If you like liquor, try it with the local dishes. But be careful, as it is very strong.
Learn the Local Dialect
"Mensore" is a word in the Ryukyu dialect meaning "welcome." Visitors will hear it at airports and kiosks.
"Haisai" and "Haitai" both mean "hello," and are used when greeting close friends.
Nife-debil means "thank you." Try and use it at shops or when someone was nice to you.
To Fully Enjoy Okinawa
Visitors can truly kick back and relax in Okinawa, while viewing the beautiful ocean and the island hills. Please keep in mind that the UV rays are harsh, so you should come fully prepared, and make sure to check the weather in advance, as some marine sports and activities will be cancelled in case of typhoons.
Okinawa Travel Tips
If you need to exchange currencies, go to the bank, or try the ATM at a Seven-Eleven store.
If you're short on cash, look for the ATM with the "PLUS" logo, which offers cash advance with credit cards.
The article below will introduce simple phrases you can use when checking in at hotels.
"Japan Connected-Free Wi-Fi" is a service for the visitors from abroad. Be sure to download the application in advance.
The article below will show how much the food costs in Japan, so take a look when planning your budget.
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