A Short Guide to Okinawa, Japan
Okinawa is Japan’s southernmost prefecture, consisting of a few dozen, small islands in the southern half of the Nansei Shoto, the island chain which stretches over about one thousand kilometers from Kyushu to Taiwan. Okinawa has the only sub-tropical climate in Japan and as such is a major tourist destination for the Japanese, but not many foreign visitors make it to these shores.
The name Okinawa means “rope in the open sea”, a fairly apt description of this long stretch of islands between mainland Japan and Taiwan.
From the northern end of the chain near Kyushu to the southern end near Taiwan, Okinawa’s major islands are:
Okinawa Island – the largest island in both size and population, featuring administrative capital Naha
– Ie – an upheaved coral reef island with only one village and an estimated population of about 5,000 inhabitants
– Ikei – a great secluded island getaway with some of the best beaches
– Kume – often said to be one of the most beautiful of the Ryukyu Islands
– Kerama Islands – a cluster of tiny islands between Kume and Okinawa
Daito Islands – specks in the sea hundreds of kilometers to the east
– Kitadaito – the easternmost island in the prefecture
Miyako Islands – tourists are usually most interested in the natural monuments found here
– Irabu – the “other island” of Miyako
– Miyako – by far the largest of the three main islands that make up the group
– Shimoji – very close to Irabu, but not quite as large
– Tarama – known for its August festival
Yaeyama Islands – closer to Taiwan than the mainland
– Hateruma – the southernmost inhabited point of Japan
– Hatoma – the smallest of the Yaeyama Islands, barely 1 kilometer in diameter
– Ishigaki – the hub of the Yaeyamas, with spectacular beaches and manta rays
– Iriomote – jungles and the mysterious Iriomote wild cat
– Taketomi – small island off Ishigaki, known for a carefully restored Ryukyu village
– Yonaguni -” the westernmost point of Japan, with mysterious ruins and hammerhead sharks
– Kuro – tiny island mildly famous for having (way) more cows than people
Most people come to Okinawa for the sun and beaches. Even in midwinter, when mainland Japan teeters around the freezing point, temperatures rarely dip below 15°C in Okinawa. For more adventurous types, the vast yet almost uninhabited island of Iriomote is covered in dense jungle.
Cultural attractions are rather more limited – Japanese colonization and World War II did a regrettably thorough job of eliminating most traces – but two standouts are Shuri Castle in Naha on Okinawa Island, and the carefully preserved village of Taketomi in the southern Yaeyama Islands.
The main attraction in Naha is the Shuri Castle, the former seat of the Ryukyu Kingdom, built in the Okinawan gusuku style. Completely destroyed during World War II, the present buildings are reconstruction from 1958 and 1992.
The town of Itoman lies south and southeast of Naha, and has several attractions:
– Himeyuri Peace Museum 671-1 Aza-Ihara, Itoman, 098-997-2101, (in Japanese). 9 AM-5 PM. Students from two women’s schools, together called Himeyuri, were mobilized to work as field nurses during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. This memorial museum documents, from a personal perspective, their lives before and during the battle, in which many of them died. Exhibits are labeled in English, and the museum is a worthwhile visit. ¥300 (discounts for high school students and younger)
– Okinawa Peace Park has several memorials relating to the Battle of Okinawa. To get there by bus, take bus no. 89 from Naha bus terminal, change to bus no. 82 at Itoman bus terminal, and get off at the Heiwa-kinendo-iriguchi stop.
– Okinawa World 1336 Maekawa, Tamagusuku village (by bus No. 54 or 83, get off Gyokusendo-mae stop), 098-949-7421, (in Japanese). 9AM-5PM. The major attraction at this theme park is Gyokusendo Cave, 890 meters long, with some interesting stalagmite and stalactite formations. Above the cave is a touristy village with performances of traditional dance, shops selling crafts and snake liquors, and restaurants. Separate admission is required for the habu snake exhibition which includes a snake and mongose show. Cave and village ¥1200, add ¥400 for snake exhibition
Kitadaito, literally “North Great East”, is the northern half of the Daito Islands, with a population of under 700 (approximately 500).
The outer part of the island is made of precipitous cliffs, while the inside is flat plains. Here you may want to see Cape Makkuro, the easternmost point of Okinawa.
The Yaeyama Islands are about as off the beaten track as it gets in Japan, but each has its own distinct character. Ishigaki has some spectacular beaches and Iriomote is the only island in all Japan with authentic jungle and mangrove forests, while tiny Taketomi is known for its carefully maintained traditional Ryukyu village.
Thanks to the pristine coral reefs that surround practically all the islands, scuba diving is the number one sports activity. Ishigaki is known for its manta rays, while Yonaguni’s star attractions are hammerhead sharks and underwater ruins.
Even with just a snorkel and mask, it’s possible to see a good assortment of tropical fish and other marine life among the reefs just a short distance from the beaches. The best spots are probably Nakamoto Beach on Kuro Island and Star Sand Beach on Iriomote.
Iriomote is the largest of the Yaeyama Islands. Around a third of the island is designated as the Iriomote National Park, the only national park in all of Okinawa. The park’s most famous denizen is the Iriomote wildcat an endangered creature found only on this island. Alas, the critter is nocturnal and very rarely seen. Other more readily viewable flora and fauna include the giant mangrove trees known as sakishimasuo-no-ki, a range of water birds, and lizards, including Japan’s largest lizard, a skink, reaching up to 2 feet in length.
On the west side of the island, the longest river in Okinawa, Urauchi River is running deep inland through dense mangroves and often likened to a little Amazon. The views can be quite spectacular, especially on a still morning. Cruises up the Urauchi River are probably the most popular activity on the island. ¥1500 per person, the exact schedule changes daily but departures are frequent (every 30 minutes or so) in the mornings. Cruise commentary is Japanese only, but an English-language summary leaflet is provided. The departure point is near the Urauchibashi bus stop.
At the end of the 8-km cruise you can disembark at Gunkan-iwa Rock and trek for half an hour through the jungle down a well-trod path to a viewing pavilion with views of the Mariyudu Waterfalls. Another 10 minutes from here the trail descends to the upper level of the falls, and still 5 minutes onward it reaches the Kanbire Waterfalls. The cross-island trail starts from here. You can also canoe your way up the river. Canoe rentals from ¥800/hour, or take a guided “eco tour” with boat transfer upriver for ¥6000. On your way back, pop into the little museum on the second floor of the cruise pier building, featuring a selection of stuffed and mounted big bugs and crabs including the scary-looking yashigani. Free.
On the east side of the island, accessible from Ohara is Nakama River. Much the same as Urauchi, except that instead of waterfalls the trail at the end leads to a giant mangrove tree said to be the largest and oldest in Japan. 70-minute cruises from ¥1,260.
Okinawa is subtropical and even in winter temperatures rarely drop below 15°C, making the area a popular winter getaway, although it’s often cloudy and usually a little too cold for sunbathing. Spring, around March and April, is an excellent time to visit if you take care to avoid Golden Week at the beginning of May. The rainy season starts early in May and continues until June. Summer in Okinawa is hot and humid but still one of the peak visiting seasons, while September-October brings a succession of fierce typhoons. November and December are again good times to visit.