A Southeast Asia Alternative: Reasons to Visit Okinawa Japan
Leah Walker March 24, 2017

Odds are that Japan isn’t the first country that comes to mind when thinking about exotic Asian beach holidays. Instead, it’s visions of the white sand beaches and turquoise waters of Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Japan, after all, is home to Mount Fuji and ski resorts. But as Japan’s southernmost prefecture, Okinawa not only has the landscapes revered in Southeast Asian countries, but also boosts the safety, cleanliness, and culture of Japan. With about 150 islands stretching hundreds of miles, exploring all of Okinawa {meaning, “rope in the open sea”} could take some time. However, only forty-nine of the prefecture’s islands are inhabited, with 25 are accessible by ferry or plane.

Escape to Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture.

Make no mistake; Okinawa may be part of Japan, but the archipelago also has a unique identity, much like Catalonia in Spain and Corsica in France. From the 15th-19th century, Okinawa was part of the Kingdom of Ryukyu. Because of its location, the Ryukyu Islands were an important trading hub between East and Southeast Asia, leading to a blend of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Thai cultures. From food to festivals, many of the traditions rooted in the Kingdom of Ryukyu continue today. A well-known vacation spot for Japanese, Okinawa is still an obscure destination for foreigners. There are countless reasons to visit Okinawa Japan, but these are my five favorites.

Nature in Okinawa

A 30-minute boat ride and a 45-minute hike through the jungle is all it takes to get to this spot.

Almost completely covered in dense jungles and mangrove swamps, Iriomote is home to Okinawa’s longest river {Urauchi}, one road, about 2,000 people, and a very special feline. The Iriomote wild cat only exists on this island, and it’s estimated that 100 still exist. These elusive cats are so revered that highway rumble strips were installed where the cats are known to cross. The noise is supposed to keep them from being run over. There are also tunnels for the cats, complete with motion-activated cameras to monitor the endangered species. It’s not just the cats that are protected. The concrete drainage ditches that line the road are V-shaped so turtles don’t get stuck. Some 80% of Iriomote is state protected land, with 1/3 of the island comprised of Iriomote National Park. Hike on the well-groomed paths to waterfalls, kayak, and SUP through the mangroves. Perfectly unspoiled Iriomote is truly a place to escape the rest of the world.

Approximately 90% of Iriomote is covered in jungle and mangroves.

From the tiny island of Yonaguni, you can actually see Taiwan on a clear day. As the western most part of Japan, Yonaguni feels isolated and remote, even by Okinawa standards. Less than 2,000 people live on the island that’s most well known for its outstanding scuba diving, special breed of small, wild horses, hammerhead sharks, world’s largest species of moths, and mysterious subterranean formations. These massive sandstone terraces are estimated to be over 8,000 years old and have been likened to a Japanese Atlantis. Now known as Iseki Hanto, a local diver first detected the formations in 1986. Take a glass-bottom boat or go diving to see for yourself, then swim at Hikawa Beach and catch stunning cliff-side views at Cape Irizaki, Kuburabari, and Cape Agarizaki.

Don’t let the size and cuteness of the Yonaguni horse fool you. They’re feisty.

With a population of about 45,000, a new airport, and excellent ferry terminal, Ishigaki is a prime jumping off point for exploring the four Miyako Islands and seven Yaeyama Islands of the Okinawa Prefecture. However, this ‘bustling’ island has plenty of outdoor activities. Regularly named as one of the top diving spots in the world, the water around Ishigaki is clear and filled with coral reefs and marine life, especially manta rays. To see the world’s largest rays, head to the northwest coast near Manta Scramble and Manta City.

Year around diving is possible, helping make Okinawa one of the world’s top scuba spots.

The blissful blue Kabira Bay and its yellowish beaches are worth a visit, though not for swimming. Here, you can walk along the bay, take a glass-bottom boat tour, and see how pearls are farmed. Near Kabira Bay is Sukuji Beach. With white sandy beaches and shallow water, this is a place to waste the day away. For a prime snorkeling location, look to Yonehara. After a morning snorkeling, go to the Yonehara Palm Tree Groves. Walk on an elevated path through the dense jungle to see the massive Yaeyama palm. At nearly 50-feet tall and 200-years old, this rare species of tree is designated as a Japanese National Natural Monument.

Although it isn’t swimable, Kabira Bay is worth seeing.

The minuscule Taketomi Island likely has more cats and buffalo than people {less than 300}. However, tiny Taketomi packs a big punch. Take a shuttle from the ferry terminal to the village center, then rent a bike and start exploring on the virtually car-free roads and pathways. Beautiful sea hibiscus, fukugi, ficus, and banyan trees dot the island, but it’s Kondoi and Kaiji Beaches that are the most remarkable natural attractions on the island.

Kondoi Beach shatters the perception of Japanese beaches.
Star-shaped ‘sand’ only exists in Okinawa.

Taketomi has some of the most renowned Pacific-region beaches, including Kondi Beach. White sand, calm, turquoise water, and coral reefs make Kondi perfect for a day in the sun. For something completely unique, head to Kaiji Beach for star-shaped sand. Not actually sand, but instead crustacean that are smaller than a millimeter in diameter, this only exists in Okinawa at Kaiji Beach and Hoshizuna Beach on Iriomote Island. Snorkelers will want to visit the northern coast and Misashi and its coral reefs.

Culture in Okinawa

Don’t miss seeing the Ryukyu buvo cultural show on Ishigaki Island.

Japan has a long history and rich culture, and certainly Okinawa reflects many of those aspects. However, the prefecture also has a unique identity. Perhaps the most prevalent difference is the language. Although Japanese is spoken, natives also speak Okinawan, Amami, Miyako, Yaeyama, and Yonaguni. To the untrained ear, these UNESCO endangered languages sound similar to Japanese. In fact, they are unintelligible to one another.

As the 8th generation living on Taketomi, this man invited me into is home. Okinawa has one of the world’s longest life spans. His mother died shortly before her 113th birthday and is pictured above the shrine.

A traditional dance known as Ryukyu buvo is performed to the music of flutes, drums, sanshins, and kotos, while wearing colorful dresses made from bingata. The dancers’ movements tell stories of celebration, sadness, and everyday life. It wasn’t until after World War II that women were able to perform the dances. It was also after WWII that Ryukyu glass was born. Faced with the war’s aftermath, Okinawans began collecting glass, such as Coca-Cola bottles from American servicemen. They melted the castoffs, transforming it into colorful, bubbled glassware. Today, this tradition still exists.

Glass is still recycled and melted to create Ryukyu glass. Watch the process in local workshops.

Another craft in Okinawa is Yaeyama Minsa weaving, which originally served as a gift of love from women to men dating to the 17th century. On the island of Ishigaki, visit Minsā Kōgei Kan to get a better understanding of this tradition. Try your hand at weaving; see the yarn dying and pattern-creation processes; and walk through the museum.

Experience the weaving tradition first-hand.

A traditional decoration of the former Ryukyuan Kingdom, the shisa is a cross between a lion and a dog from Okinawian mythology. They are believed to protect from evil spirits. They can be seen throughout Okinawa, from the rooftops in Taketomi’s meticulously preserved Ryūkyū village to the Yonekoyaki Craft Center on Ishigaki. Located next to the center is park filled with massive, modern interpretations of the shisa.

The most well known tradition is one that most people don’t even realize is from Okinawa: karate. That’s right, karate originated in the Ryukyuan Kingdom. The martial art began developing as early as the 1400s and morphed throughout the centuries.

Food and Drink in Okinawa

I’m forever spoiled for Okinawa sashimi.

Plucked from the water in the morning and sliced a few hours later, sashimi doesn’t get any better than in Japan. Salmon, tuna, marlin, and so much more grace tables throughout the Okinawa Prefecture. However, because of the climate and influences from multiple cultures, Okinawan food varies from that of traditional Japanese.

Sea grapes are slightly addictive.

Umibudo, also known as sea grapes, are a very popular appetizer. Tasting like seaweed, with the texture of fish eggs, umibudo is definitely worth a try. Goya chanpuru {bitter melon} is a vegetable often used in stir-fry and an acquired taste. The extremely sour lime-like calamansi is common and often used as an accent to food or in drink mixes. In Okinawa, the sweet potatoes are purple and delicious. From diced, baked, and covered with honey to ice cream, those with sweet tooths will be in heaven. Other sweet treats include dark sugarcane products and Sātāandagī donuts, which are basically Okinawan donut holes.

A meal isn’t a meal without a little pork in Okinawa.

Okinawans don’t let much go to waste when it comes to the pig. Perhaps the most popular pork dish is sōki soba, which is a type of noodle soup with pork cubes. Eat the deep fried gurukun {banana fish} from nose to tail. This white fish is the most popular of the prefecture. Beef connoisseurs will drool over Ishigaki beef. These prized Wagyu dine on the green grass of Ishigaki before being sent to other parts of Japan to mature. Thus, thus this meat is rare, expensive, and divine.

Believe it or not, taco rice is a thing in Okinawa.

Another common dish is taco rice. I’m sure that sounds incredibly strange, but this is a result of the American military influence on the islands. Created by a fast food restaurant, seasoned ground beef, tomatoes, lettuce, cheese, and hot sauce are piled on top of white rice to make taco rice.

Awamori is refreshing when mixed and unique to Okinawa.

Sake and shochu are synonymous with Japan. However, Okinawa has its own alcoholic specialty: awamori. The clear beverage is distilled using water, black koji yeast culture, and long-grain Thai rice. Ranging from 30-50% alcohol content, drink it on the rocks or mixed with water. Add a bit of fruit flavor with a splash of mango or pineapple juice.

Scuba Diving

Expert or novice, Okinawa is a diver’s dream.

As previously mentioned, scuba diving in Okinawa is world class. The subtropical climate means that water temperatures range from 70-84° F, depending on the season. The crystal-clear water allows for a visibility depth from 100-130 feet, allowing caves, marine life, tunnels, WWII wrecks, and other seascapes to be easily seen.

A bird’s eye view of Okinawa’s waters

For some of Okinawa’s best diving, look to Ishigaki Island, Umicoza, and instructor Harvey Tiew. The Malaysian master diver speaks five languages, including English. Ishigaki is most known for its abundance of manta rays. From January-March, see hundreds of hammerhead sharks off the coast of Yonaguni, as well as the incredible subterranean formations. Expect to see clownfish, sea turtles, pufferfish, moray eels, and large schools of dogtooth tuna. During the winter months, humpback whales breed in the waters around Okinawa.

Mostly known as a vacation destination for Japanese, the word is getting out to foreigners.

Little known and absolutely lovely, Okinawa offers a taste of Japan with a twist. Okinawa isn’t littered with luxurious resorts like much of Southeast Asia. Rather, the real luxury of Okinawa lies in its tranquility and hospitality. The friendliness of the Okinawan people, along with its scrumptious cuisine, rich culture, and outdoor pursuits, are just a few reasons to visit Okinawa Japan. You’ll want to get there before the rest of the world finds out the secret.

 

I was a guest of Japan’s Okinawa Prefecture. In no way was I swayed by the heartwarming hospitality, the natural wonders, or the unbeatable cuisine. As always, opinions are mine.

Leah Walker

Leah's a luxury travel and food writer who has as many stories as she does shoes. She documents her experiences whether that's in the lap of luxury or riding through a swamp in an airboat. Leah freelances and has contributor/editor roles with The Daily Meal, The Daily Basics, Bonjour Paris, France Today, Luxe Beat Magazine, Four Seasons Magazine, Forbes Travel Guide, and is a travel ambassador for Atout France USA. Leah's thrilled to call Paris home after being awarded the coveted three-year Compétences & Talents visa from France, though her talents don't extend to speaking French. Yet.

4 Comments

  1. These are definitely some compelling reasons to visit Okinawa. We have family friends whose sons were stationed there in the military, and they loved being stationed there. I can see why. Iriomote looks right up my alley.

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