Japan is mostly known internationally for Tokyo’s bustle and neon nightlife and Kyoto’s cultural attractions, but Japan is packing another secret gem: Okinawa. This southern prefecture is Japan’s tropical getaway, and it’s downright beautiful.
Okinawa’s has a rich and interesting history, which most notably includes a long period of independence before Japanese occupation and the conflict that took place here during WWII. This mix of factors, and Okinawa’s wonderful climate, make it a truly unique spot for vacationers and cultural travelers alike.
And there’s even more good news: Okinawa is still mainly popular among locals, and has yet to experience an international tourism boom like Hawaii’s. That means that a vacation there will be notably less crowded than other destinations of a similar climate.
Rough Guides’ Andy Turner picked out a bunch of reasons why everyone needs to visit Okinawa at least once. Here are a few of our favorites from his selection.
Okinawa is Japan’s answer to Hawaii
Courtesy of Visit Okinawa
Okinawa is often dubbed the ‘Japanese Hawaii’, and the comparison seems apt when you head to the outer islands or jima. With over 130 to choose from it’s tricky to pick out a favorite but Aka-jima (in the Kerama islands), a short if bumpy ferry ride from Naha is hard to beat for sheer beauty. Once the boat departs, you’re left with the sound of waves gently lapping against white sand and the scent of Ryūkyū pines in the sea breeze; you might even spot an elusive Kerama deer taking a dip.
For classic white-sand and emerald water eye candy you’ll need to hop on a plane to Ishigaki, part of the Yaeyama group of islands, 400km southwest of Naha. Here Kabira Bay is as close as Japan gets to Boracay or Waikiki Beach, with only half the level of commercialization. There’s even a gloriously unpretentious hostel which makes for a tempting place to wake up.
Okinawa’s wildlife is crazy
Courtesy of Visit Okinawa
The further you travel from the Japanese mainland Okinawa’s wildlife gets progressively weirder. On Hatoma in the Yaeyamas, huge armor-plated coconut crabs, up to a metre across, lumber past traffic to mate in the sea. A short boat ride away on Iriomote, tiny wild boar, half the size of their mainland cousins, roam the beaches snaffling up turtle eggs, while inland a rare miniature ‘leopard’, the Iriomote cat, prowls the forest.
You can still see the remnants of an ancient empire
Gliding into Naha, aboard the sleek airport monorail, you could be forgiven for thinking that not a single building survived World War II (the city was devastated during the US assault on Okinawa in April 1945). Yet hidden among the utilitarian modern architecture are several reminders of its heyday as the capital of the Kingdom of Ryūkyū.
An independent state sandwiched between Ming dynasty China and feudal Japan, Ryūkyū developed its own culture and language, before finally being annexed by the Japanese in the nineteenth century.
The influence of its neighbors can be seen at Shuri Castle, painstakingly rebuilt in the 1990s. Here, vermilion Chinese pagodas and ornate dragons stand side-by-side with minimalist Japanese rooms kitted out with tatami mats. Look up and you’ll spot shīsā or ‘lion dogs’, glaring down from the roof. This uniquely Okinawan mascot can be seen warding off evil spirits and typhoons across the islands.
You can find the awesome Andy’s full list on Rough Guides.
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