Salaryman crowds, neon buildings and high-speed railways are scenes typically associated with Japan. But this is not the case in Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture with scattered subtropical islands close to Taiwan.
Okinawa consists of 160 large and small islands over an expansive ocean area. The seas are also considered among the world’s best with coral reefs, exotic marine wildlife, especially for snorkelling and scuba diving enthusiasts.
Its unique cultural references date back to when the islands (known as Ryukyu Islands) were part of an independent kingdom and tributary state to China for several centuries. The Ryukyu kingdom flourished through commercial trade with China, Korea, Southeast Asia and mainland Japan, which greatly influenced the kingdom with a unique character where diverse cultures blend.
Towards the end of World War Two, Okinawa became one of the bloodiest battlefields when American troops invaded the islands. In fact, Okinawa was under US administration until 1972, with some 30 military bases that still being stationed across the surrounding islands today.
Okinawa also achieved world-wide fame when they were found to be the country with the longest life expectancy in the world; Okinawans live to be 100 years old on average. That said, the people in this prefecture have an interesting take on life as compared to locals in mainland Japan – less uptight, more carefree.
However, Okinawa’s attraction as a preferred tourist destination is still underappreciated. To broadly sum up what Okinawa has to offer, visitors can expect to enjoy the prefecture’s tropical weather, beautiful nature and geological formations, as well as stunning beaches.
The confluence of vestiges from many eras and influences –15th century Ryukyu kingdom to the Meiji era in the 19th century – allows visitors to experience an evolving history. Palaces, temples, shrines and villages of the early Ryukyu kingdom still remain as one of the main attractions for visitors.
Immerse in the splendour of the Ryukyu kingdom by first visiting the Shuri Castle, or Shuri-jo, which was the residence of Ryukyu kings until Okinawa became a Japanese prefecture in the 19th century under the Meiji rule. Like the rest of the Ryukyu castles, Shuri Castle — originally built in the 14th century, destroyed multiple times during the war and restored in 1992 — is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The approach up to the castle is a 15-minute hike, where from the hills lie the views of Naha, the largest city Okinawa. Tread across the walls and multiple gates of Shuri Castle as you marvel at examples of Ryukyu architecture and residences including the Enkaku-ji Temple, the main temple of the Okinawa Rinzai sect of Buddhism; and Tama-udon, the Royal Mausoleum.
On top of the hill is the castle’s main hall, the Seiden, which remains as one of the most elaborate buildings in Okinawa. The red colour sets it apart from other castles in Japan.
Okinawa is also home to several UNESCO recognised ruins from the early kingdoms. Nakagusuku Castle and Katsuren Castle are two popular spots for visitors to hike up to look at these well-preserved ruins of the castles and their unique architecture. They too serve as a vantage point to the undulating landscapes and clear blue waters of the beaches.
Besides having a unique culture, Okinawa boasts a different type of cuisine that you don’t normally see in other parts of Japan. One of its unique delicacies is Sea Grapes, a signature appetiser dish served in many restaurants across the city. It has the texture of fish roe but the taste of seaweed — a surprising combination of flavours that can be unexpectedly addictive.
Another unique delicacy besides seafood is a primitive wild boar species found on Iriomote Island. Usually hunted, these hogs are richly fattened by eating wild acorn and strangely has similar taste as Iberico pig. Visitors should also try chicken sashimi or the traditional Okinawan Alcohol called the Awamori.
And thanks to its open trade culture and long history, Okinawa is also home to over 2,000 restaurants offering diverse cuisine from traditional Japanese robatas and izakayas, to American pizzas.
Shunsen Ryori Arata
Arata is located one floor below Hotel Maruki in Naha city and is known for serving dishes made with fugu (blowfish). It is not commonly served in restaurants around Okinawa, making Arata the place to be for this famous delicacy. It is best enjoyed in winter when the flavour of the fish is at its best. One must-try dish to sample is the Ikifugu Ippon Zukushi (various dishes using the whole live Fugu).
If you’re exploring the southern part of Okinawa, make a stop at Motobu Farm, where locals would highly recommend its premium beef. These cattle are fed with natural beer lees and grains to ensure top quality meat. Visitors to the farm must try the various export-quality cuts (robata or sukiyaki) as well as the burger patties that are made in-house. The company has also an outlet in the city.
It was not until 2012 that five-starred hotels began to open in Okinawa with The Ritz-Carlton Okinawa and Hoshinoya Okinawa being among the firsts in the region. What makes the resorts here is the amazing surrounds that feel more like a Mauritian or Hawaiian holiday instead.
The Terrace Club at Busena
If you’re looking to withdraw from the city’s fast-paced life, the Terrace Club at Busena is a five-starred wellness destination that offers customised programs to help you find peace of mind. Immerse in the breathtaking sunset and sunrise views across the horizon as you relax and meditate in oceanfront settings in the resort. Take part in Thalassotherapy sessions that draw on the natural healing of seawater, algae pastes and marine mud to improve circulation and metabolism. In-house chefs also make sure that menus are curated to nourish the body from the inside out.
Hyatt Regency Seragaki Island Okinawa
Hyatt Regency Seragaki Island is Japan’s first Hyatt beach resort property that opened in August 2018. It is connected via a bridge to the main island of Okinawa, approximately one hour by car from the airport. The Hyatt property is located in Onna, Okinawa’s most sought-after beach destination, offering sweeping views of the East China Sea from all 344 its guest rooms. While staying here, visit the Bios no Oka subtropical forest, the Ryukyu Mura theme park as well as the scenic Cape Manzamo, a dramatic coral cliff perfect for gazing at the sunset.
Things to do
If you’ve already explored the Australian outback and been on a safari in South Africa, the next thing on your travel wishlist should be a wildlife adventure in Okinawa. Located in Iriomote (known as the locals as Iriomotejima), the second-largest island in the prefecture is a dense subtropical and mangrove forest brimming with wildlife. It is home to rare species including the crown eagle and Iriomote yamaneko, an endangered wildcat unique to the island.
The island is also perfect for hiking expeditions through the jungle or even kayaking along the rivers that crawl through the land. The Manta Way is a highlight – a strait between Iriomote and Kohama Island, which is a popular diving hotspot to catch migrating schools of manta rays, especially in spring and summer. Thanks to its weather and unspoiled natural landscape, the island is also ideal for swimming and snorkelling.
Plan your visit around the Setsu festival in August to experience a 500-year-old celebration of Iriomote’s unique way of life, a religious event to give thanks to the abundance of crops and harvests.