The Outpost mini-guide to travel and adventure in Okinawa, Japan.
By Simon Vaughan, Senior Editor, Outpost Travel Media
(feature photo: Jo Turner)
Okinawa, referred to as Okinawa Main Island, is the largest and most densely populated island in the Okinawa Prefecture, the southernmost of Japan’s 47 prefectures (or administrative districts). Comprising 49 inhabited islands and 111 uninhabited ones in the Ryukyu archipelago that is nestled between the Pacific Ocean and East China Sea, the prefecture covers more than 2,217 sq. km and stretches more than 1,000 km in length.
Spanning both tropical and subtropical zones, the islands are home to approximately 1.4 million people and a considerable (and controversial) number of U.S. military personnel.
It’s believed the first residents of Okinawa arrived about 22,000 years ago, though exactly from where is up for debate. Some say the original Minatogawa people arrived from China, while others suggest Indonesia, elsewhere in Asia, or even Australia. What is undisputed is that by the 15th century, the proud and varied peoples of the islands had united as the Ryukyu Kingdom and become a trading powerhouse in the region.
OKINAWA and JAPAN
In the 16th century, the Shimazu Clan from the Japanese mainland (as the rest of Japan is referred to!) invaded the Ryukyu Kingdom and placed it under the control of the province of Satsuma. By the 19th century, the Ryukyu Kingdom was abolished completely, and the islands made into Japan’s Okinawa Prefecture.
The Infamous Battle of Okinawa
During the Second World War, Okinawa was of considerable strategic value to both the Japanese and the Allies, with Japan boosting approximately 115,000 soldiers and navy troops as well as local militia to defend it. By 1945, the Allies had advanced on the islands with a view to using them as a launching point for an attack on the Japanese mainland.
On April 1, American troops, backed by British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand ships and carrier-borne aircraft, launched an invasion. The battle raged for 82 days and claimed the lives of 14,000 (predominantly American) Allied troops, 77,000 Japanese troops, and possibly as many as 150,000 Okinawan civilians—a third and by some estimates even half of its prewar civilian population.
The intense fighting became known as “tetsu no ame” in Japanese—in English, the typhoon of steel—and resulted in the destruction of 90 percent of the island’s buildings, including much of its historic Ryukyun structures and cultural treasures.
Okinawa and the United States
From the end of the war in 1945 until 1972, Okinawa was under American control via the United States Military Government of the Ryukyu Islands administration, during which time many U.S. military bases were established. Today, almost 30,000 American personnel are stationed in Okinawa, along with about 20,000 family members. While many polls suggest many Okinawans want the U.S. bases closed, some 9,000 Okinawans are employed by the U.S. military, and the presence of the bases accounts for four to five percent of the prefecture’s economy.
Okinawa’s main airport is in Naha, the prefecture’s capital and largest city, which is located on Okinawa Main Island. Numerous Asian airlines provide regular service to Naha, including from Taiwan (approximately one hour/45 minutes from Taipei), China (3 hours/45 minutes from Beijing, and about 2 hours from Shanghai), Hong Kong (2 hours/30 minutes) and South Korea (2 hours/15 minutes from Seoul, 2 hours from Busan).
As would be expected for one of Japan’s most popular beach destinations, there is also regular airline service between Naha and most of the rest of Japan. A flight from Tokyo’s Narita airport takes approximately 3 hours/20 minutes, while from southerly Yoronjima in Kagashima Prefecture it takes just 40 minutes.
Direct domestic service is also available from the mainland to other islands in the Okinawa archipelago, but service is less frequent and prices are considerably higher.
For travellers with a nautical bent, there is a regular ferry from Kobe/Osaka to Naha that takes about 43 hours; or from Kagoshima to Naha that takes about 25 hours. But be warned: the schedule and service can be severely disrupted during typhoon season.
ON OKINAWA MAIN ISLAND
By Monorail: The Okinawa Urban Monorail, or Yui Rail, operates between Naha airport and Shuri Castle on Okinawa Main Island, with 13 stops along route, making it a great way to see many of Naha’s key sights.
By Bus: A number of bus companies offer fixed schedule bus service across almost all of Okinawa Main Island. In addition, there are limo-buses providing service between Naha airport and the city’s main hotels, and scheduled tourist buses to key sights including Nakijin Castle, Shuri Castle and the Okinawa battle sites.
By Taxi: As Dave Hazzan suggested in his Okinawa feature for Outpost magazine (May-June 2016 issue), safe and reliable taxis on Okinawa can be expensive. For example, a taxi from Naha city center to the far north Churaumi Aquarium would cost about $160 CDN. However, shuttle taxis are available for set fees between the airport and major hotels, and some taxi drivers are also licensed tour guides—though finding one who speaks English may be a challenge.
By Car Rental: There are numerous car-hire companies in Okinawa, with pickup available from Naha airport. Visitors require a passport, an international driving permit and their domestic driver’s licence from their home country. The minimum driving age is 18 and roads are good. Don’t forget that like the rest of Japan, Okinawa drives on the left. (Interestingly, during the American occupation, Okinawa switched to driving on the right and it wasn’t until 1978 that the decision was reserved, likely to the chagrin of the thousands of U.S. military personnel!)
By Motorcycle and Bike Rental: There are a number of companies offering bike and motorbike rentals at considerably lower rates than car rental.
BETWEEN THE ISLANDS of the OKINAWA ARCHIPELAGO
By Air: There are regular scheduled flights between Naha and all of Okinawa’s main outlying islands as well as within some of the outlying islands. Flights range from approximately 25 minutes to one hour/15 minutes. If planning on extensively exploring all of the Okinawa archipelago, it’s worth looking into a regional air pass that allows multiple flights at a considerable financial saving.
By Sea: There are numerous ferries and high-speed ferries that operate between Okinawa Main Island’s ports and all of the surrounding Okinawa islands, as well as among the outlying islands themselves. Travel times range from 35 minutes (Naha to Kerama Islands) to 15 to 17 hours from Naha to Minami-Daito or Kita-Daito island. Service can be infrequent to some of the smaller and more outlying islands.
With daytime winter temperatures (January and February) rarely dipping below 18 degrees Celsius, Okinawa’s temperatures aren’t much of a deciding factor in determining when to travel—unless, of course, you prefer to avoid intense heat and humidity, which Dave Hazzan did not do!
Okinawa’s hottest months are from July to October, when temperatures can top 32 degrees, and even the sea weighs in at a bath-like 28 degrees. But of greater concern are the rains that fall from April to June, and typhoon season, which can occur from June to November (with August and September being peak typhoon months).
WHEN (NOT) TO GO
Okinawa has always been a popular destination for Japanese holiday makers; so if you don’t like crowds it’s probably best to avoid late April to early May. Known locally as Golden Week, this loose cluster of public holidays sees much of Japan on the move, a bit like North American spring break.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotels: Okinawa offers a wide range of accommodation, from budget-type hotels that require you to pump coins into a slot to keep the air conditioning going, to international-standard luxury beach resorts located on exquisite stretches of perfect sand. Although Japan in general is more expensive than other destinations, there really is something for every budget in Okinawa, catering as it does not just to well-heeled luxury-seekers but also to Japanese surfers, international backpackers and general beach bums.
Youth hostels and budget accommodation: Backpackers looking for dorm rooms can choose between any of the prefecture’s numerous youth hostels and its guesthouses, or up the ante for the privacy of a minshuku, an economical Japanese B&B. Finally, there are Western-style budget hotels, but be aware that in addition to charging extra for a little air con, you may have to stump up for showers or just to use the room fridge.
Camping: For those on really tight budgets, there are organized campsites scattered around the islands, some of which sidle up to pristine beaches. Just note that some offer no more amenities than cold showers.
WHAT TO SEE
Despite none of the Okinawa islands being large, there’s much to see in the archipelago today. You can visit restored ancient castles or attend a habu snake show in Okinawa World Park. At the Cornerstone of Peace memorial, you can pay respect to those killed in the Battle of Okinawa, or visit Churaumi Aquarium, one of the best such facilities in the world.
You can stay in a yurt and take your meals in a treehouse on the Motobu Peninsula, or walk through the underground tunnels that served as the Japanese military headquarters during the Second World War.
Search for the endangered Iriomote wild cat in the dense jungles of Iriomote, shop in a local market or watch the sun rise over the Pacific Ocean and set over the East China Sea on the same day.
Okinawa isn’t just the best place in all of Japan for scuba diving, snorkelling and fishing, it also boasts beaches that are comparable to any in the Pacific. Endless stretches of flawless white sand run to clear turquoise water, while some of the finest coral reefs in the world lie just offshore.
While Okinawa Main Island has more than its share of idyllic spots within reach of Naha, a short boat trip away lie impossibly-perfect uninhabited islands and islets. Just don’t look for T-shirt vendors or cocktails with umbrellas on them—uninhabited truly does mean uninhabited here!
There isn’t a lot of English spoken in Okinawa. Apart from places that cater to the military or tourists, and maybe some younger Japanese who studied it in school, for the most part you’ll have to make do with a phrasebook or a translation app.
If you’re still stuck, there’s the Multilingual Contact Center (phone: 0570-077201) that provides everything you ever wanted to know about Okinawa but didn’t have anyone to ask (in English); it costs about 10 cents for three minutes, or $1 for three minutes if calling by cell phone.
Okinawa is in the same time zone as the rest of Japan, which is nine hours ahead of UTC (that is 13 hours ahead of Toronto, 16 hours ahead of Vancouver).
Okinawa uses the Japanese yen (approx. 1 CAD = 81 JPY; as of Jan 2021). Okinawa has 26 currency exchange machines that allow travellers to deposit foreign cash and receive Japanese yen back. The eight foreign currencies currently accepted include U.S. dollars, Chinese yuan, Taiwanese dollars, Korean won, Hong Kong dollars, Australian dollars, British pounds and euros.
Given Okinawa’s unique culture, it’s not surprising there are distinct differences between mainland Japanese food and Okinawa cuisine, which is guaranteed to whet the appetite of any wandering foodie.
Okinawa’s historic trade with present-day China, Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, mainland Japan and other regional neighbours—not to mention the postwar GI influence—transformed its cuisine into something of an Asian hotpot, one of the staples of which is the sweet potato—not the most common of ingredients at your local sushi joint, we’ll bet!
While the rest of Japan are big seafood eaters, Okinawans prefer meat, especially pork. In fact, Okinawans boast their cuisine begins with pig, ends with pig and has everything in between except the hooves and the oink (and Dave Hazzan said as much too, though what’s wrong with the hooves we’re not sure!).
Seafood was never as popular on Okinawa as elsewhere in Japan, in part because it was harder to keep it fresh in the warmer climate. Thanks to modern refrigeration, seafood is widely offered today in Okinawa restaurants, along with most other mainland Japanese food including sushi.
And of course if you’re missing a taste of home, that American GI influence means it’s never too hard to find a hamburger.
Some Very Useful Tidbits:
Okinawa voltage is 100V, 60Hz.
It is frowned on to speak loudly, litter or spit. And don’t even think of smoking in non-designated smoking areas.
Tipping is not expected, but saying thank you is.
While Japan is renowned as being efficient, high-speed and high-octane, Okinawa is renowned for being slow-paced and laid back—so take a deep salt-air breath and just enjoy the experience.
Most countries and cultures have a touchy topic that shouldn’t be raised in mixed company. In Okinawa, the elephant is the presence of the U.S. military.
If you’ve ever fancied studying karate, you could do worse than taking classes in Okinawa, the place where it was invented! Believed to have developed from Chinese kung fu and traditional Ryukyun martial arts, karate is arguably Okinawa’s most famous export.
Okinawa’s most feared resident is the habu, a catchall used to describe a number of different venomous pit-vipers that call the islands home. Though having a highly toxic venom, the survival rate for bite victims is very high if medical treatment is received quickly. Fortunately, as most habu encounters happen in people’s homes and not in hotels or tourist areas, few visitors ever encounter one… unless as a gimmick in a bottle of awamori.
Don’t Do It!
There are some strict animal and plant quarantine laws in place in Okinawa Prefecture and Japan aimed at protecting livestock and agriculture industries. Not unlike the restrictions found in Australia and New Zealand, all travellers entering and leaving Okinawa to/from anywhere, including the rest of Japan, can expect to be searched for prohibited items, including some species of sweet potatoes and citrus plants. It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the restrictions before you hop the plane or boat.
Lastly, Okinawa is renowned within Japan for its colourful events and festivals. Here are a few of the most popular, and definitely worth dropping in on if you’re in the area:
- Itoman Hari
- Tomariiyumachi Father’s Day Fish Fair & Tuna Festival
- Pillars of the Light for Peace/Lights of Peace on the Eve of the Memorial Service for All War Dead of the Battle of Okinawa
- Sundays in late July/early August: Kuroshima Harvest Festival
- Tokashiki Whale Strait Festival
- Yonabaru Great Tug-of-War Festival
- All Okinawan Children’s Eisa Festival
- Ginowan Hagoromo Festival
- Summer Festival in Naha, and 10,000 Eisa Dancers Parade
- Mid-August: Zamami Island Festival
- Mushama of Hateruma
- All-Okinawa Eisa Festival
- Orion Beer Festival
- Zamami Island Festival
- Harvest Festival of Tarama and August Dance festival
- Mid-Aug to mid-Sept: Appreciation Festival of Kohama Island
- Mid-Sept to early Oct: Traditional Festival of Iriomote Island
- Early Oct: Noguni Sokan Festival
- Naha Great Tug-of-War Festival
- Mid-Oct. to early Dec.: Seek-Picking Festival of Taketomi Island
- Okinawa Industry Festival
- Yomitan Festival
- Kanucha Stardust Fantasia
- C-1 Gourmet Battle
- All month: Zamami Island Fan Appreciation Month
- Tsuboya Pottery Festival