Okinawa (沖縄) is Japan’s fifth-largest island and is situated south of mainland Japan. Okinawa was a separate kingdom with its own rich history until 1879. That year, Japan annexed Okinawa and it has been part of the country ever since. Today, Okinawa is a very important US Army and Navy base.
Owing to its own rich history as well as its wonderful tropical climate, Okinawa is a great tourist destination for visitors. Though Okinawa has a lot of sites, the focus of this article is for those who want to enjoy it within a short span of three to four days.
The best way to travel to Okinawa is by air. One can travel from any of the major airports in Japan. A flight from Tokyo takes approximately three hours to reach Naha.
If you are a budget traveler, no need to worry as there are plenty of low-cost carriers such as Vanilla Air and Peach to cater to your needs. On the flip side, however, these low-cost carriers literally dump you in the cargo bay of Naha Airport. You need to take a shuttle bus to reach the actual airport.
My recommendation is to finish your sightseeing of Tokyo then head to Naha on an evening flight, and spend the night at a hotel in the area. There are plenty of hotel options – both for business and leisure. If you are on a strict budget but still love your breakfast, I would recommend the Okinawa Miyako Hotel (沖縄都ホテル).
The following are my recommended things to do in Naha, Okinawa:
It is better to start your tour with a visit to the Okinawa Shurijo Castle (首里城). The Gusuku (グスク) Castle was the royal court and the administrative center of the Ryukyu Kingdom (琉球王国). Like most castles in Japan, the Shurijo Castle has its own history of destruction and renovations. But, unlike most castles in Japan, this one is more inclined towards the Chinese style of architecture. Don’t miss the Dragon Throne or the Bridge of Nations Bell replica in one of the outer halls of the castle.
One activity that you should not miss while you are visiting the Shurijo Castle is the chance to dress up like the Emperor and Empress of Okinawa. Even kids get to be princes and princesses. Of course, the price is a bit steep, but it could be one of those memories that you could take away from Okinawa and cherish for a long time.
Another must-do activity, especially if you have kids, is the stamp collection. Get a stamp sheet from the museum office at the entrance of the castle. At various points within the castle, there are various stamp points. Collect these stamps and your kids could win some interesting prizes based on how many stamps you manage to collect.
The castle is situated on a raised platform from the rest of the city, so the views from the top of the castle give a great overview of Naha.
Kindly note that there are many Gusuku castles all over Okinawa and you can visit any of them. Some of the more remote ones are more intact with their original architecture than Shurijo Castle. But Shurijo Castle is the most easily accessible of the castles from the Naha area.
About 15 kilometers from Naha is the Mihama American Village. It is an American-themed area with shops, restaurants, and entertainment options for a full family outing.
There is a Ferris wheel in the center which gives a nice overview of the area around the American Village. There is also a small beach with Baywatch-style lifeguards. There is a wide variety of international cuisine available in this village – from Indian to Thai to American.
Like most islands, Okinawa is rich in water sports. One of the most famous snorkeling and diving destination in Okinawa is the Blue Cave. It is called so as it is covered in blue light.
There are many small organizations that conduct snorkeling expeditions in the area. When we visited, we used the services of Pink Mermaid. They provided an instructor for our family and underwater photos from the experience which was wonderful. This is one activity I would recommend that you do not miss!
Kindly note that based on the condition of the sea, trips to the Blue Cave might be canceled. In such cases, they would take you snorkeling in another safer area around the cave.
Along the coastline of Okinawa, there are various beach resorts, which have an exclusive area of the beach earmarked, catering to different budgets. If you book in one of these places, then you can have family fun at the resort. Of course, these resorts are priced slightly higher than regular hotels, but usually, they are worth the extra cost. We stayed at Hotel Miyuki Beach (ホテルみゆきビーチ).
Apart from the wonderful view from our room, we could actually see the sunset over the ocean in the evening. The hotel also had an onsen (温泉) or a Japanese hot bath overlooking the sea, so you can take a bath while watching the beach. Furthermore, the resort had water activities like riding a motor boat, banana boat, etc. which are available at an extra cost.
Finally, you can cap off your trip to Okinawa by coming back to Naha and shopping at Kokusai Dori. This is the place to be if you are looking to buy gifts and souvenirs from Okinawa.
Two things that you cannot miss in the gift shops are the Okinawan lion souvenirs and the Okinawan cookies. They form a perfect set of gifts to buy. The Okinawan lion is all over the place and comes in different shapes and styles. They will fit neatly on your display case. The Okinawan cookies come in a lot of exotic flavors including sweet potato, pineapple, mango, and other traditional flavors. Kokusai Dori will provide you with the perfect bargain on these items that you are looking for.
If you plan to be at Kokusai Dori on a Sunday, you can watch some street dances and performances which take place between 10 AM and 6 PM on the street.
Also, if you are a vegetarian, don’t miss the organic vegetarian restaurant at Kokusai Dori, Ukishima Garden (浮島ガーデン).
Finally, remember to try these two things while you are in Okinawa.
- The first is Okinawan pineapple which is very juicy and tasty. Most of the decent hotels will serve them during breakfast so do not miss them.
- The second one is Blue Seal ice cream. You cannot miss their shops as they are all over Okinawa. Don’t forget to try some of the exotic flavors they offer!
Okinawa is one of the best tourist destinations in Japan because it offers a variety of vacation activities for the full family. For the adventurous, there are the castles and underwater explorations to be done. For those seeking rest and relaxation, the beaches and the beach resorts provide the perfect vacation option. And finally, for those interested in shopping, Okinawa offers its own unique set of products for you to purchase and enjoy!