This string of tropical islands off Japan’s southern tip are home to some of the best beaches and dive spots in the whole country. There’s also unspoilt rainforests, welcoming locals, unique culture and great food. Okinawa prefecture covers the southern section of the group of islands known as Ryukyu Shoto (The northernmost islands are part of Kagoshima prefecture). This article provides a brief introduction to the area.
A Brief History of Okinawa
There is evidence that there has been human habitation in Okinawa since prehistoric times, and the location of the islands between China and Japan meant that the inhabitants enjoyed prosperous trading from early times. The Ryukyu islands were an independent community, but from the 15th century they were strongly linked with China, to whom they paid regular ‘taxes’.
In 1609, Japanese warriors conquered the islands. To avoid angering the Chinese, the Japanese also demanded taxes and allegiance from the islanders, while allowing them to remain theoretically an independent country. The Ryukyu Islands became part of Okinawa Prefecture (and therefore officially Japanese) in 1879.
Okinawa was invaded by American troops in the final stages of WWII and it’s estimated nearly a third of the local population was killed as a result. The Americans governed Okinawa until 1972, when rule was handed back to Tokyo. However several American army bases remain on the islands and there are large numbers of US troops still stationed here.
Getting to Okinanwa
The easiest way to get to Okinawa is by plane, with domestic flights serving the main airport at Naha. There are some international flights to neighbouring countries, but most international visitors route through Tokyo or Osaka. Prices have come down recently, and it is possible to get a very cheap flights – Skynet Asia offers a ¥10,000 flat rate fare for international visitors which works out about £60.
There are also ferries that run from mainland Japan to Okinawa. These mainly run from Tokyo, Osaka or Kobe, although there are some local routes from Kyushu.
Most travel between islands is now by plane, although some short ferries routes still run. Naha is the main hub for island flights, which are operated by several local airlines.
Where to Stay in Okinawa
Naha on Okinawa-Honto is the main town in the islands, and the main transport hub, so it is likely you will visit here at some point during your trip to Okinawa. The town was reconstructed by the Americans after WWII, so it has a curiously western feel to it. Naha is good base for exploring some of Okinawa’s beaches and is a good place to stock up on cash and essentials before heading out to the smaller islands.
The Kerama Islands are easily reached by ferry from Naha, and offer great beaches and diving, as well as whale watching in the winter.
The Miyako Islands are paradise for beach lovers or divers, but they can be difficult and expensive to reach as local ferries have now been replaced by flights.
Further south are the Yaeyama islands, which are also reached by plane. Less crowded than some of the other islands, these offer a chance to experience one of the least spoilt areas of Japan.
Must See Okinawa
This meticulous recreation of the home of the original Ryukyu rulers is notable for its blending of Japanese and Chinese architecture and culture. After passing through several defensive outer gates, you’ll reach the inner courtyard, with throne rooms and ceremonial halls. English explanations are limited, but there is a good display about the building in English at the Suimuikan information centre opposite.
Peace Memorial Museum
The southern tip of Okinawa-Honto was the site of the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, and the area is covered in war cemeteries and peace memorials. The Peace Memorial Museum has displays about the war and its consequences with English translations, and does not gloss over the atrocities committed by the Japanese as well as the Americans during this period.
With year round warm water filled with shallow reefs as well as deeper diving spots, both beginners and experienced divers can find something in Okinawa. There are several dive shops dotted around the islands; they will be able to update you with the latest conditions and which dives suit your ability. If you want to experience Okinawa’s sea life without getting wet, the Churaumi aquarium in the north of Okinawa-Honto has explanations in English.
One of Okinawa’s largest islands, this island only has two small settlements with a population of barely 1000. The majority of this island is uncharted tropical rainforest, rich with abundant wildlife. There are several waterfalls and rivers in the forest that can be reached, either by hiking or via boat if you are feeling less energetic. Iriomote is also home to great diving and the western tip of Japanese territory.
The proximity to China meant the culture of these islands has always had many more influences than mainland Japan, and the tropical climate adds another unique dimension to the Okinawan way of life. Experience traditional Ryukyu culture by checking out local crafts, the delicious local cuisine or taking a karate lesson – it is rumoured that Ryukyu warriors developed karate after seeing Chinese martial arts.
Find out more about Okinawa prefecture on their official tourism website.