Okinawa is an island in the Ryukyu Islands chain, and is at the southern end of Japan. There are hundreds of islands in this chain and it stretches for more than one thousand kilometers.
The capital is Naha and it sits on the southern side of the island. Since the island is made of coral rock, it has many caves formed from rain that has fallen over the centuries.
Everyone must be aware of the Vietnam War, and Okinawa was the point where Americans based themselves to bomb North Vietnam.
The US still has installations on the island today, with more than forty thousand troops based there at any one time. Almost twenty percent of the total land mass is a natural park with one of the rarest species of cat living here.
The Iriomote Cat is just one of the attractions, and the islands are surrounded by coral reefs which attract a magnificent array of sea life. Sea turtles lay their eggs on their beaches, but the summer brings a wave of dangerous sea creatures including poisonous jellyfish. Look for the extremely rare corals off Ishigaki or Miyako islands.
Table of Contents
Best time to go
Temperatures are generally good throughout the year with an average of around 20C during summer. July and August are the best months for turtle lovers to watch the babies making their way out to the ocean.Winter can be a little chilly, so water sports are a little uncomfortable at this time. Light coats are needed to keep arms warm, but it is not really too cold. For cheaper deals, February sees guest houses and hotels that aren’t filled with tourists.
Buses in Okinawa and Naha itself are not that good. Not only are they quite expensive, they also go very slowly and waste time. They don’t run to strict schedules, so valuable sightseeing time can be lost in this way. Taxis are extremely reasonable and are probably the best way to get around.
They are not as expensive as Tokyo so consider hiring a taxi for sightseeing. Bicycles are also a good way to get around, but the hills may be too steep for some people. Scooters are another option, but visitors must have a Japanese driving licence. It may be better to opt for a car hire deal since there is little to see in Naha itself. If arriving in Golden Week, book up the car well in advance and confirm more than once!There is a ferry in Tomari, and people can actually travel to Tokyo if necessary.
This trip takes forty four hours so is not that easy. The ferry also services other islands in the chain, and this is a good way to have an adventure.There is a monorail but it does not cover a very wide area and there are no trains.
Major Attractions and Sights
One of the places that must be visited in Okinawa is the Ocean Expo Park. Here you can play with dolphins, check out the extensive aquarium, and have fun in all the attractions. One of these is the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium which has two magnificent fourteen feet whale sharks on display. Manta rays are here, as well as tuna and bonita all living very comfortably in a tank with twenty seven inch thick plexi-glass walls overhead.
This aquarium has mastered the art of breeding the whale shark, so this is history in the making. They have also managed to reproduce the giant manta ray. This is absolutely essential for conservation of course, since oceans are being over fished.Here too find more than eight hundred colonies of coral housing more than seventy different coral forms. The tank itself is unique in that it has an open roof which allows natural sunlight to enter the tank.As if all this is not enough, the aquarium also has an exhibit featuring deep sea species found in the surrounding waters of Okinawa. Again, some of these species are extremely rare with exhibits like the Ruby Snapper and the Blacksail Snake Mackerel followed by the shrimp which is luminous! Full explanations of the exhibits are featured on the panels around the aquarium.
In 1992, Shuri Castle was opened up again to the public after undergoing some serious renovations. This is the place to view real history of emperors, warriors and warlords. The castle was built in the 1300s and stood on the hill overlooking Naha, the capital. The Sho dynasty operated out of the castle for a stunning four hundred and fifty years. It and its exhibits, really gives an insight into what the locals had to endure in those times.
Shurei Gate is one of the three main gates to the castle. The gate was seen as a national treasure, but was destroyed in World War II. They rebuilt the new gate in the image of the old one from the original blue print.
Eisa Dance is a must see festival that goes on during the summer months. The drumming and dancing show the heroic men and women of the island, and is a Buddhist dance of prayer which gives the ancestors a good passage to the afterlife. As ancestor worship is big here, the festivals are always well attended, and the dancers and drummers are highly enthusiastic. There are a whole host of events going on so try to visit over several days at least.
Imagine jumping into a speed boat and setting off for one of the other beautiful islands in this chain. Tourists can even drop in on a deserted island for an afternoon of picnics and snorkeling. The water is absolutely breathtaking, and there are not too many tourists who try this out. Drop in on a few smaller towns and experience island life or camp out for a night or two. Around the island of Zanami, try to spot a whale or two between December and April.
If visiting in January, the cherry blossoms are in full bloom. To commemorate the first flowering of these stunning trees, the town has a Cherry Blossom Festival full of performing arts, events for everyone to join in with, and fireworks to end the nights.
There are so many shops in Okinawa that no one will go home empty handed. If the latest goods are needed, they will be found right here. Kokusai Street in Naha houses souvenir shops, wonderful restaurants and fashion boutiques, selling top end designer clothes, galore.
Isetan Department Store is the main shop in Shinjuku, and it known throughout Japan for its fashionable jewelry. For touch of ‘local’ shopping, the Heiwa Street and Market’s Main Street areas are where the residents hang out. For a touch of something different, buy fresh sea food on one floor and have it cooked to order on another!
For arts and crafts, Washita Shop sells some wonderful examples of local craftsmanship. Find here too, liquor marinated tofu or a range of health food. They also sell the traditional lion-dog statuettes seen on many buildings throughout Japan.
The Yomitan Pottery Market is on for three days in December, and youe can pick up some charming, locally made pottery here. These make for great souvenirs or keepsakes to take home.
Okinawan cuisine has long been held as the reason why so many people live to a ripe old age. The dishes on offer can be as elegant as a full banquet to simple dishes that everyone can afford. Nuchi Gusui (food is medicine) uses herbs and vegetables in weird concoctions – like ox blood in urine – to aid a long and healthy life. However, there are many other delightful dishes that do not include body fluids!
Although western style food is available, thanks to the presence of the American forces, Okinawans have such a healthy diet that they are the longest living people in the world. So much so that studies are being done on them all the time. Even when they reach one hundred years, they don’t look like westerners, since they still look trim and active.
Sky Pizza offers delicious pizzas although there is not much variety. Find this restaurant about half an hour out of Nago. Sam’s by the Sea has great steaks on the menu, and the seafood is to die for. The curry soup comes with every meal and people rave about it.
On the same route as Sam’s by the Sea, find the King Kong Yakiniku. Here choose a selection of raw meat and cook it right at the table. There is sushi, soba, seafood and rice, and all the dishes one would expect in Japan. Lunch is cheaper than dinner and the weekends tend to be busy.
Club Echo is a popular night spot but many people complain of the behavior of the local US servicemen based here. It is not far from the center of town, and is just a few minutes walk away from the port.
Bar Spade attracts servicemen, foreigners and locals alike, and all taxi drivers know where it is. It opens until morning, and for revelers who have a little too much, rooms are available upstairs.
Try a trip on the local Party Bus for a night out on the town. The bus accommodates around thirty people and the ticket price includes drinks. It goes all the way to Naha, and they are not averse to picking up some local girls to make the party go with a swing.
Try out Gate 2 Street which is full of bars and clubs by night and shops in the daytime. This is really a party street so be prepared!
Anything of local interest
Okinawa is one of those places that have something going on nearly every month of the year. Tourists will always find something unusual going on since there are festivals and displays going on all the time. Some of them are dedicated to tropical flowers, while others have some form of ancient meaning to them.
One odd thing about Okinawa is the way they run their ‘all you can eat’ buffets. Not to be treated lightly, as soon as the customer sits down to eat, they are put on a timer. This stops people going crazy but rather defeats the object of all you can eat buffets for sure.
No tipping is allowed in this part of the world so if the food was good, just say ‘domo arigato’ or ‘derishasu’ which means thank you or ‘delicious!’
The Okinawa Flower Carnival takes place from January to May and it sees the whole place decorated with tropical blooms of all descriptions. There are many events going on too so this is a great family friendly event to attend. Not to be missed too, is the Okinawa International Western Orchid Exhibition. It has more than five thousand different orchids from Japan, and the rest of the world.
May sees the Naha City boat race with forty two paddlers taking out the magnificent dragon boats. This is a sport peculiar to this part of Japan so try not to miss it.
Bull fighting is generally known as happening in Spain, but here in Okinawa they tend to do things a little differently. The strongest bulls are brought over from all the islands and then set against each other instead of humans. This is a big day in the calendar for these islands so expect to see crowds here.
December, sees the Okinawa Marathon taking place and the local authorities really respect those who take part. Their motto is ‘you, the runner, are the leading part’ so one can see how highly these runners are thought of. It is commonly known as the Festival of the Sun, Ocean and Jogger and it takes place in Naha.
Lastly, the Dai Ryukyu Oukoku – The Great Ryukyu Kingdom Festival – has many events going on in December also. This is the festival to beat all, and people can see great ethnic performances, Songs of the Islands and other events peculiar to this island in particular.