[2018 Edition] 30 Things to Do in Okinawa From the Standards to Hidden Gems
Okinawa Prefecture is an incredibly popular tourist destination for those traveling from within Japan. These southern islands are full of charm, from the blue ocean and beautiful nature, to the unique culture and cuisine. This article will introduce 30 carefully selected spots, from the classics to hidden gems, that showcase the true wonder of Okinawa.
Where is Okinawa?
Okinawa, the southernmost prefecture in Japan, is a collection of islands in the East China Sea, situated in between Honshu (Japan's main island) and Taiwan. Okinawa is comprised of several islands that extend 1,000km east-to-west and 400 north-to-south, centered around the main island which contains Naha, the capital of Okinawa.
As Okinawa is a subtropical region, it enjoys warm temperatures year-round. It is a land full of natural beauty, from the islands surrounded by coral reefs, to the emerald green ocean, to the subtropical forests which are remnants of ancient times. It is also notable for having its own distinct culture different from that of mainland Japan.
There are direct flights to the main island from all around Japan as well as from Taiwan, China, and South Korea. There are also ferries to the main island that depart from Osaka, Kobe, and Kagoshima. Other islands within Okinawa can be reached by boat from Naha Port on the main island. There are some islands that can be accessed by direct flight from Naha Airport as well.
In this article, Okinawa will be divided into five areas, and there will be spots and things to do listed for each.
Okinawa Main Island - North Area
For this article, the north area of Okinawa Main Island refers to the area from Kunigami Village to Onna Village. The must-sees of the north part of the main island are further divided into three areas: the Motobu Peninsula, famous for its World Heritage Site castle ruins among other things, Nishi-kaigan (west coast), which contains Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium as well as large resorts and other leisure facilities, and Yanbaru, which is home to many rare species of flora and fauna.
From Naha Airport, one could reach Cape Hedo, the northernmost tip of the main island, in about three hours by car, and Cape Manzamo in the Nishi-kaigan area can be reached in about one hour.
Take a Stroll Through the Nakijin Castle Ruins
These castle ruins are located in the village of Nakijin on the Motobu Peninsula, and are a very historical spot, having been recognized as a World Heritage Site. The ruins are especially known for the beautiful stone walls that surround the castle site. These walls were built using very old techniques, and it's very interesting to see the contrast between the roughness of their appearance with the beauty of their curvature, which was completed by skillfully utilizing the shape of the land.
There are seven walls in total, counting the outer walls, and their combined area is roughly equal to that of Shuri Castle, the largest castle in Okinawa. The castle was once used by a lord of the independent Ryukyu Kingdom, and before that was used as the residence for the King of Hokuzan, who used to rule over Okinawa.
Entrance fee: General - 400 JPY, Elementary and middle school students - 300 JPY, Pre-school and younger - free
Visit the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium
The Ocean Expo Park is a place where visitors can enjoy grand nature and historical learning experiences, and even play with dolphins. Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, the most popular sightseeing spot in all of Okinawa, is located within this park.
In the Okinawan dialect, "churaumi" means "beautiful ocean." You can fully explore the mysterious world of the Okinawan ocean in aquarium areas such as the "Coral Reef" tank, which is naturally lit by the rays of the sun, the "Kuroshio Sea," which houses the largest species of fish in the world, the whale shark, as well as the world's first Alfred manta ray to be successfully raised in captivity, and the "Deep Sea" tank, which is a recreation of the deep sea around Okinawa.
Entrance fee: General - 1,850 JPY, High school students - 1,230 JPY, Elementary and middle school students - 610 JPY
Take Part in the Gesashi River Mangrove Canoe Experience
If you visit Yanbaru, a place with expansive subtropical forests, then you will definitely want to stop by the Hirugi Grove in the Gesashi Bay Mangrove Forest, which has been designated as a national natural treasure. This forest, located downstream of the Gesashi River, has an area of around 10 hectares, making it the largest in Okinawa's main island.
While you can take a stroll through the pathway or enjoy the view from the observation platform, the most recommended activity here is to take the canoe exploration tour led by an expert guide, during which you will be able to enjoy the dynamic natural landscape from up-close.
Example fare (2-hour course): General - 6,000 JPY, Elementary school student - 4,500 JPY, Pre-school or younger - 3,000 JPY (all prices include tax)
Take in the Ocean View at Kouri Beach
Kouri Island can be accessed from the main island via bridge. Kouri Beach, located in the vicinity of that bridge, is very popular with tourists for its beautiful scenery which consists of the contrast of the white sandy beach with the sparkling emerald green ocean.
The water near the shore is shallow, so you can enjoy swimming in the ocean even if you have small children with you. The surrounding area is also outfitted with showers and toilets, as well as shops and restaurants. You can also take the stairs to the top of the bridge to get a panoramic view of the scenery.
Enjoy the Scenery at Cape Manzamo
Cape Manzamo is a scenic rock formation with a naturally occurring lawn that is perched atop a protruding coral cliff. This cape is well known for the beautiful view of the ocean that spreads out beyond the grassy field.
The most popular spot for taking photos is a rock formation that looks like an elephant. The water is so clear that you can see the coral reefs below the surface, and if you look really closely you can even see colorful fish swimming about.
Dive Through the Blue Cave at Cape Maeda
You can see a panoramic view of the whole East China Sea from Cape Maeda. Additionally, the cape is known as the best place in all of Okinawa for diving and snorkeling, as it has crystal-clear waters and is home to a large number of tropical fish. The Blue Cave is a cave formed by erosion from the ocean waves, and the reflection of the sun's rays on the surface of the water creates a mystical blue atmosphere. If you go on a diving tour (guides can be hired starting from 10,000 JPY), it is advised to go from early morning until noon, as that is the time when the cave is most beautiful. You don't need a license for this kind of diving experience, and beginners need not worry as training lectures are available.
Do Various Okinawan Activities at Ryukyu Mura
Located in the town of Onna, Ryukyu Mura is a theme park where visitors can learn about Okinawan traditional culture through a variety of activities, such as craft and dance. Many of the old Japanese houses that have been transferred from their original locations to the park grounds are over 100 years old and have been registered as Tangible Cultural Properties of Japan.
There is a variety of entertainment trial classes available to try, ranging from Bingata (traditional Okinawan method for dyeing fabric) (2,000 JPY), to weaving (from 1,000 JPY), to making sata andagi (a traditional Okinawan sweet) (1,500 JPY). The highlight of Ryukyu Mura is michijyune (performed twice a day), which is a traditional type of parade that is performed at events in Okinawa all throughout the year.
Entrance fee: General - 1,200 JPY, Child - 600 JPY
Okinawa Main Island - Central Area
The central area of the Okinawa main island is a place where you can encounter a variety of different cultures. There are a large number of US military bases in this area, centering around the town of Chatan, which has resulted in the development of "Chanpuru" culture (called "Gochamaze" in Okinawan dialect), which is the mixing of the cultures of the United States and Okinawa.
In the southern part of this area you can experience a big city vibe at Okinawa's capital city Naha, but in the town of Shuri, the capital of the former Ryukyu Kingdom, a historical atmosphere remains. As many citizens of Okinawa were casualties of land battles during the ending stages of the Asia-Pacific War, many facilities have been constructed in this area to tell the story of that tragedy, and to convey a message of peace to the world.
The Yui Rail monorail system connects the city of Naha to the airport, and is the best mode of transportation for those who want to travel within the city. It is about a 75-minute drive from Naha Airport to Mid-Sea Road on the east coast of the island. Peace Memorial Park can be accessed from the airport in about 30 minutes.
Drive Along the Mid-Sea Road in Uruma
The Mid-Sea Road is a bridge that extends from the Yokatsu Peninsula on the east coast of the city of Uruma and goes on to connect four outlying islands. You can enjoy a pleasant drive on sunny days, as the emerald green ocean borders both sides of the road. The Umi no Eki Ayahashi Kan is a rest area located around the halfway point of the bridge where you can buy local goods and souvenirs. Here, you'll be able to eat some seafood while looking out at the expansive ocean before you.
Go for a Swim at Ikei Beach
Ikei Island is one of the outlying islands connected to the main island by the Mid-Sea Road. This small island is about 11km from the main island, and Ikei Beach is located close to the area where the island is connected via the Ikei Ohashi bridge. This is a very popular spot among the locals, not just for swimming, but for a variety of other activities as well.
Since the beach is part of an inlet, you can swim without having to worry about large waves or the ebb and flow of the tides. However, there is a sudden increase in the depth of the water in some places, so you will want to keep a close eye on any children you have with you. There are shops nearby, as well as places to shower and change clothes. This is a great spot to have a barbeque!
Facility usage fee (one day): General - 400 JPY, Child - 300 JPY, Children 4 y.o. and under - free
View the Pacific Ocean from Kafu Banta
Kafu Banta is also accessible from the Mid-Sea Road, and this spot where you can see a gorgeous view is one of the few hidden gems in Okinawa. It is located within the grounds of the Nuchi-masu Sightseeing and Salt Factory on Miyagi Island and can be visited freely during the factory's operation hours (9:00 am - 5:30 pm).
"Banta" is the Okinawan dialect word for "cliff," and this spot lets you view the beautiful scenery of the ocean and cape below from a cliff 120m in height. It is best to visit on a sunny day, as the view is the most beautiful when the sun in shining down from the center of the sky.
Visit the Katsuren Castle Ruins
Katsuren Castle is the oldest of all the castles to be registered as World Heritage Sites. Located on top of a small hill overlooking the ocean, this castle is said to have been impregnable due to how it utilized the natural cliffs.
The castle is surrounded by an elegantly curved, beautiful stone wall. From the top of one of the kuruwa (wall of a Japanese castle) that is at an elevation of 100m above sea level, you can enjoy a panoramic view that includes Nakagusuku Bay to the south and the Mid-Sea Road to the east.
Take a Stroll Through Kokusai Dori
Most tourists that come to Okinawa make a stop at Kokusai Dori, a shopping street in the city of Naha. The roughly 1.6km street is flanked on both sides by around 600 stores and shops that range from souvenir shops to hotels, department stores, restaurants, clothing stores, general stores, and more. It's even fun just to walk around and look at all the shops!
Get Your Fill of Okinawan Cuisine at Makishi Public Market
If you are walking around Kokusai Dori, you should definitely make a stop at Makishi Public Market, a marketplace where you can find all the ingredients that define Okinawan food culture. For example, you can find colorful fish that were caught in nearby waters, tebichi (pig's feet) and chiraga (smoked pig's face), and shima-dofu (Okinawan-style tofu). There are also local fruits and vegetables as well as alcohol lined up and sold in the shopping arcade outside of the market.
You can even have the ingredients you buy at the market cooked for you (for a fee) at the cafeteria on the second floor, so why not challenge yourself to try some of the interesting-looking foods on display?
Visit Shuri Castle
The Ryukyu Kingdom had a unique culture due to trading with China, Japan, and other places in East Asia, and Shuri Castle was the glorious center for politics, diplomacy, and culture during that time.
The actual castle from that time was lost to a fire, but the ruins have been restored as Shurijo Castle Park. From the Seiden, which was the largest building in the Ryukyu Kingdom, to the magnificent Shureimon castle gate, the bright red buildings of this castle have become the symbol of Okinawa.
Entrance fee: General - 830 JPY, High school students - 620 JPY, Elementary and middle school students 310 JPY
Walk Through the Elegant Shikinaen Garden
Located around 2km south from Shuri Castle, Shikinaen was constructed in 1799 as a secondary residence for the Ryukyu royal family. The garden draws inspiration from Chinese, Japanese, and Ryukyu styles, and was designed as a strolling garden with a central pond, a style that was preferred by daimyo (Japanese feudal lords) during the Early-modern period (1568-1867). The two islands in the central pond, one big and one small, hold a Chinese-style gazebo called Rokkakudo, an arched bridge, and the red-roofed Goten, a traditional Ryukyu dwelling. You can take a fun stroll around the perimeter of the pond.
Entrance fee: General - 400 JPY, Middle school students and under - 200 JPY
Drive Along Nirai Kanai Bridge
If you drive along Highway 331 from Chinen, Nanjo City, you will come across the Nirai Kanai Bridge. While driving along this bridge, you will be able to enjoy the gorgeous view of the sky and sea as it takes a sharp curve while facing the ocean.
There is a tunnel that goes almost to the top height of this elevated bridge, and the view from the top is magnificent. The name Nirai Kanai refers to a utopia that is believed to exist far way under the sea, and it is an appropriate name for a bridge that provides such a magnificent view. The view is back-lit during the morning hours, so it is recommended to go between 11:00 am - 3:00 pm on a sunny day.
Enjoy the Panoramic View from Cape Chinen Park
Cape Chinen, which extends into the Pacific Ocean from the east coast of the main island, is one of the best-kept secrets in Okinawa. This park, which contains a gazebo with a characteristic Okinawan red-tiled roof, is a place where you can feel the cool ocean breeze and look down at the ocean view that spreads out below. The beauty of this view is top class, even among other spots in the southern part of the main island. This spot is close to the Nirai Kanai Bridge, so it is easy to visit both in one trip.
Visit Sefa Utaki
Sefa Utaki is a registered World Heritage Site where you can experience Okinawan spiritual culture. This holy land in the middle of a primeval forest is regarded by many people, even now, as a place for prayer.
In Okinawa, there is a myth that that the islands of Okinawa where made by the creation goddess Amamikiyo who came from the ocean utopia Nirai Kanai. The holy areas for the religion based on that myth are called utaki, and Sefa Utaki is said to be the most sacred among the many utaki that remain from the Ryukyu Kingdom. Here, you can experience a truly mystical atmosphere while surrounded by dense woods and uncovered boulders.
Entrance fee: General - 300 JPY, Child - 150 JPY
Visit Peace Memorial Park
Peace Memorial Park is located in the Mabumi Hills of Itoman City, where the final battle in Okinawa took place during World War II. This large, elevated park where you can get a good view of the coastline is about 40 hectares in area. Here, you can honor those who lost their lives in the war as well as truly feel the precious value of peace.
The park was designed on the concept of "requiem, prayer, and peace," and here you can visit various places, such as a museum that houses pictures and artifacts from the war (entrance fee: 300 JPY for Aduts), and the Cornerstone of Peace, a memorial on which the names of all those who lost their lives are engraved, as well as other graves and memorial towers. You can even have a picnic on the lawn, as this park is also used as a recreation area by local residents.
Visit Gyokusendo Cave at Okinawa World
Okinawa World is a place where you can take part in all sorts of activities that showcase the charms of Okinawa, from history and culture to nature. This theme park contains an area that recreates a townscape from the Ryukyu Kingdom era, a fruit farm that grows tropical fruits, eisa (Okinawan folk dance) shows, habu (a type of snake) shows, and much more!
Among the things to do there, the most popular option is to visit Gyokusendo Cave, which is said to be the most beautiful limestone cave in all of Asia. Formed over a time period of around 300,000 years, this cave contains over 1 million stalactites, the largest number in all of Japan. It is also the longest cave in Japan, with a total length of around 5km.
*At this time only 890m are open to the public.
Entrance fee (Open Greeting Pass): Adult - 1,650 JPY (incl. tax), Child - 830 JPY (incl. tax)
Feel the Mystery at Gangala Valley
Located near Okinawa World is the Gangala Valley, a place where you can experience the mysteries of nature. This subtropical forest used to be a limestone cave until hundreds of thousands of years ago, when the cave collapsed. Here, you can come into contact with abundant nature that has existed since ancient times.
In order to enter this forest, you are required to be accompanied by a full-time guide on a walking tour (reservations must be made at least one day in advance). While walking on the roughly 1km path that goes through the forest, you will encounter rare flora and fauna, land formations, and caves over a period of about 1 hour and 20 minutes. Audio guidance devices in English, Chinese, and Korean are available.
Tour fee: General - 2,200 JPY, High school, vocational school or college students - 1,700 JPY
Shop at Mihama American Village
Mihama American Village is a very popular spot among local youths. In addition to unique shops selling casual clothing and import goods, there are also amusement facilities, restaurants, cafes, and more.
There is also a nearby beach with a beautiful view of the sunset, so you can enjoy shopping and relaxation in one spot. The symbol of the area is the large Ferris wheel (General - 500 JPY, Child - 300 JPY), from which you can see beautiful views that change depending on the season and time of day.
Watch a Traditional Eisa Performance
Eisa is a traditional dance that is performed throughout Okinawa during the last day of the Bon festival of the lunar calendar (July 13 - 15 according to the lunar calendar, and around the 13th - 15th of August according to the Gregorian calendar). This dance is an annual ritual to welcome the spirits of ancestors and send them off into the afterlife, and consists of dancers forming a line and progressing forward while dancing along to singing and taiko drumming. While this dance can be seen at theme parks and other places in Okinawa all throughout the year, if you have the chance you really ought to visit Uruma City to see Dento Eisa, which traditional Eisa as it has been handed down through the generations.
While there are Eisa performances throughout the city on the last day of the Bon festival, Uruma City also holds an Eisa event after Bon is over, called the Uruma City Eisa Festival*. This festival is full of dynamic Eisa performances, and you will be able to see all the varying styles of Eisa from different regions all in one place. In 2018, the eve of the festival was on September 7th, and the actual festival took place on the 8th and 9th.
*The photo is of the Eisa Festival in Naha
Eat Okinawa Soba
Okinawa Soba is the classic dish among Okinawan cuisine. It usually consists of noodles made with flour, salt, and lye water that are topped with pork belly, kamaboko (fish cake), benishoga (red pickled ginger), and green onions. It can also be topped with soki (pork ribs), tebichi, fuchiba (Japanese mugwort), and other toppings. The soup is generally made with a dashi (stock) of pork bones and katsuobushi (shaved bonito). In addition to restaurants that specialize in Okinawa Soba, you can also order this dish from lots of other restaurants that serve Okinawan food.
Try Dishes Made with Okinawa Agu Pork
You should also try some Agu pork, a species endemic to Okinawa. This brand of pork has a meat quality that is soft and tender, with a high level of marbling that melts in your mouth, and full-bodied umami (Japanese savory taste) and sweetness.
If you want to enjoy the classic shabu shabu (hot pot of thinly sliced meat boiled in broth and dipped in sauce), then one option is the restaurant Shokusai Shubo Matsumoto. The house-made ponzu (soy sauce with citrus) and slightly spicy shequasar-kosho (a condiment made with Okinawan citrus and spicy chilies) really bring out the flavors of the Agu pork. The average meal is about 6,000 JPY per person. Reservations are preferred.
*Image is for illustration purposes
Yaeyama Islands Area
There are many outlying islands in Okinawa Prefecture, and the Yaeyama Islands are among the most famous. Located about 400km from the main island at a latitude of 24°N, these are the most south-western islands in all of Japan.
It is about 55 minutes by air from Naha to Ishigaki Island, the central hub of the Yaeyama Islands. There are also direct flights from Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, and Fukuoka. The other islands in the Yaeyama archipelago can be reached from Ishigaki Island via high speed boat, ferry, or airplane.
Enjoy Marine Activities at Kabira Bay, Ishigaki Island
The gorgeous Kabira Bay is an absolute must-see area in Ishigaki Island. Here, a few islands float in the world's clearest ocean water. You can witness the beauty of the white sand contrasted with the gradations of the water that turns from blue to green.
While swimming is prohibited due to the strength of the tide currents, there are many marine activities that you can do instead. Options include stand-up paddle boarding (SUP) on top of a refurbished surfboard (7,000 JPY), taking a trip on a kayak with a clear bottom (3,000 JPY per boat), or going for a ride in a glass-bottomed boat that lets you see the coral and subtropical fish under the water (1,030 JPY per person), and more.
Enjoy an Old-fashioned Townscape on Taketomi Island
Taketomi Island can be accessed by boat from Ishigaki Island in just 10 minutes. Here, the old Okinawan atmosphere from long ago remains among the three villages in the north part of the island, which have pure-white coral sand roads, houses with red-tiled roofs, and brightly-colored flowers.
One option for traveling around the island is a water buffalo-pulled cart (1,200 JPY). You will be able to leisurely travel around the villages while listening to the shamisen (three-stringed Japanese lute) playing and singing of the guide.
Go Hiking through Iriomote Island, the Galapagos of the Pacific
Located about 40 minutes from Ishigaki Island by ferry is Iriomote Island, the second largest island in Okinawa Prefecture. With many rare species of plants and animals living in the subtropical forests that cover about 90% of this island, it is also called "the Galapagos of the Pacific."
The hiking tour, which allows you to experience this ancient nature with all five senses, is available all throughout the year. While walking through the jungle, you will be able to encounter many rare animals, view dynamic waterfalls, and more.
Cost (Canoe and hiking 1-day plan): 11,000 JPY (incl. tax)
Miyako Islands Area
The Miyako Islands are located about 300km southwest from the Okinawa main island. There are 8 large and small islands in the archipelago to visit, with Miyako Island as the main hub.
By air, Miyako Island is about 45 minutes from Naha and 30 minutes from Ishigaki Island. There are also direct flights from Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya. In addition to by air or boat, there are also some islands within the Miyako Islands archipelago that can be reached by car.
Enjoy the Superb View at Higashi-hennazaki, Miyako Island
Located on the westernmost point of Miyako Island, Higashi-hennazaki (Higashi-henna Cape) offers a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean and the East China Sea. Watching the waves crash against the protruding coral cliffs along this cape of around 2km in length is quite the dynamic sight! You can enjoy an almost 360° view from the top of the lighthouse (200 JPY entrance fee) at the very end of the cape.
You can also see designated protected species of plants such as tennoume (Ribes ambiguum) and isomatsu (Plumbaginaceae), which only grow in highly windy areas. There is an established walking path that goes all the way to the end of the cape.
Kume Island Area
Kume Island is located in the sea about 100km from Naha, and is the westernmost island in Okinawa Prefecture. It can be reached from Naha in about 30 minutes by plane, or about 3 hours by boat.
According to myth, Kume Island (also called "The Island of God") is the place where Amamikiyo, the ancestor of the founders of the Ryukyu Kingdom, descended from heaven and started forming the islands of Okinawa. Thus, there are many holy sites. Even now, the inhabitants of the island undergo Shinto rituals to pray for and express gratitude toward peace.
Visit the Pure White Beaches of Hate-no-Hama
To the east of Kume Island, you will find Hate-no-Hama, an uninhabited island covered with a sandy beach. The cobalt blue ocean completely surrounds this pure white beach, which is composed of whitened coral and seashells that have been pulverized over time.
Various boat companies offer half-day and full-day tours to Hate-no-Hama (from 3,500 JPY). You can also swim and do marine sports here, in the place that is known as the most beautiful beach in all of the Asian Pacific.
That's the list! Please use this guide as a reference during your trip to the southern islands, Okinawa Prefecture.
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.
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