Okinawa 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. Dubbed as Japan’s Hawaii, it has so much to offer both on land and offshore. Here are 10 things to do for the ultimate Okinawa experience!
It is better to start your tour with a visit to the Okinawa Shurijo Castle. The Gusuku Castle was the royal court and the administrative center of the Ryukyu Kingdom. 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. With the crystal clear waters and abundant marine life, it is a grave mistake not to see what’s underwater. There are several coral reefs in the area and numerous places that offer diving opportunities.
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. Another good place is Emerald Beach for it has very high-quality water and exciting sea life.
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.
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.
Watching the sunset over the ocean is a very healing and romantic experience. Locals like to head to Sunset Beach and watch the play of colors while enjoying a nice barbecue.
A big attraction on the main island of Okinawa is the Churaumi Aquarium. Here you can see the biggest fishes of earth, whale sharks, as well as many other marine creatures and enjoy a petting area and a dolphin show. With all of the attractions around the Ocean Expo Park, it’s easily a whole day activity. Surely something that adults and kids alike will enjoy immensely.
For an experience out of dreams and photos, no doubt prompting jealousy from all onlookers, riding on a horse at a beautiful beach is a perfect choice. On Iejima just 30 minutes from the main island, people can ride horses or even swim with them at one of the prettiest beaches of the islands at the Iejima Beachside Horse Park.
If the amazing ocean views are not satisfying all your nature needs, Okinawa still has you covered. There are several breathtaking waterfalls around the islands and they are definitely worth a visit! Why not check out Hiji Falls and trek the national park around it?
If you are curious about the marine life but would rather avoid observing it from inside the water, a glass-bottom ship is just the thing for you. Surely kids will love it, but it’s a very interesting experience for adults, too. In Busena Marine Park, you can try out one of these boats and even a combination ticket is available which also grants entry to an underwater observatory tower!
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.
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.
Of course, you will need energy to do all these activities and the best way to get it is enjoying local dishes!
Try the very juicy and tasty Okinawan pineapple. Most of the decent hotels will serve them during breakfast so do not miss them.
Blue Seal ice cream is also a must. 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 also famous for its goya, taco rice, sweet potatoes, and meat among many others. The abundance of choices will surely last for a good few weeks while you try everything!
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!