Visiting Japan? Don't Miss the 'Land of Immortals'
While mainland Japan is bullet trains, bustling cities and formal culture, Okinawa offers a more laid-back vibe amid tropical beaches, close-knit communities and swaying sugar cane fields.
The Okinawa Prefecture is a group of 160 islands spread out across 250 miles south of Japan. Okinawa is the main island, located about a three-hour flight from Tokyo or Hong Kong. These islands are a popular tourist destination for Japanese, Chinese and other Asian tourists -- and it should be on your list too.
Here our Travelzoo team in Japan offers their tips on why you should add Okinawa to a vacation to Asia.
1. You'll feel like you're on a whole different vacation.
Okinawa is the Yang to the Yin of a trip to Japan. Things here run on Oki time, a definite change of pace from the hyper-fast schedule of mainland Japan. The culture, food and history are distinct from Japan as well. Most flights land in Naha, on the southern part of the main island of Okinawa. The capital city is also a popular cruise port, with cruise lines such as Celebrity, Silversea and Royal Caribbean docking here.
For the highest variety of dining, nightlife and culture options, stay in Naha. For more of a luxury escape, head off to Nago and Onna in the northern part of the island to find bigger resorts such as the Ritz-Carlton and Marriott.
The main island is small enough that you can get around with a rental car and see the top sights like Nakijin Castle and Manza Cape in a couple of days. Then you'll want to venture to the outer islands for unspoiled beaches, incredible diving and authentic culture.
2. This is Japan's tropical getaway.
Expect picturesque beaches that will pop on your Instagram, temperatures that don't dip below the 60s and stunningly blue water. Some of the most jaw-dropping scenery can be found on the outer islands, many of which are an easy ferry ride or short flight from Naha.
Beaches you don't want to miss include Sunayama on Miyako island, Furuzamami Beach on Zamami island and Emerald Beach on the main island.
If you venture to Hateruma island -- the water here has earned its own word for blue in the Japanese language.
3. Dive for underwater treasure.
Below the surface, the scenery is just as spectacular. Clear water and coral reefs make this a prime spot for scuba and snorkeling. Miyako island is a particular favorite.
An hour flight from Naha (there are also nonstops from Tokyo and Osaka), the island is known for quiet beaches, shallow-water snorkeling and, for those that explore deeper, underwater caves and rich marine life. While it's farther from Okinawa island (and closer to Taiwan), Yonaguni offers up a stunning underwater experience. Horseback riding on the beach (and in the ocean) is a popular activity, but the biggest draw for advanced divers is the "Yonaguni Monument". These underwater monoliths are either stunning natural rock formations or the remnants of an ancient lost city. You be the judge. On the main island, snorkeling the Blue Cave in Cape Maeda is popular because it doesn't require a diving license. For this reason, it can also get quite crowded. But the deep blues of the water are worth it.
If deep-sea diving isn't in your plans, a visit to the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium on the main island should be. With one of the world's largest tanks, you'll find whale sharks and giant manta rays swimming in sea water cycled right from the ocean. It make take your breath away.
4. You might discover the secret to a longer life.
Once referred to as the land of immortals, Okinawans are five times more likely to reach 100 years old than their counterparts elsewhere in Japan. And Japan already has the highest life expectancy in the world.
The islanders are also significantly less likely to have cancer, heart disease and dementia. Studies have also found that Okinawan women live longer than anyone on the planet, thanks to a combination of diet, exercise, community spirit and genetics.
5. Centuries of culture that's different from Japan.
Okinawa was independent until 1879, so there is a strong cultural heritage that predates the Japanese and pulls from Chinese and native Ryukyu influences.
The most prevalent example are the Gusuku -- ancient castles dating back to the 13th century. Several of these are now among Okinawa's nine UNESCO World Heritage sites, including Shuri Castle near Naha. Serving as the center of the Ryukyuan kingdom for 450 years, the castle was restored in 1992 after being destroyed during World War II. You may also notice the Shisa -- which are lion statues unique to Okinawa. They are often found in twos near a gate or door to ward off evil spirits. It's a good bet you'll end up taking a pair home.
6. This is the home of karate.
One of the island's best-known exports, karate was developed on Okinawa as a weaponless martial art. Devotees will travel from around the world to train with the master senseis.
There are actually several different disciplines within karate -- you can see the subtle (and not so subtle) differences during demonstrations at karate museums across Okinawa. The new Okinawa Karate Kaikan opened just a year ago in Tomigusuku near Naha. The complex includes a museum, training center and dojo.
7. They do amazing things with pork.
Okinawa is renowned for its unique cuisine, with traditional dishes featuring fresh seafood such as tuna, slow-cooked pork and locally grown, nutrient-rich produce such as goya (bitter melon) and sea grapes. Explore Naha's Makishi Public Market for fresh seafood and beef, then take it upstairs to be cooked.
Pork is a staple of the diet, and a local saying translates to "everything but the cry is eaten". Don't leave the islands without trying Okinawan style soba noodles -- the soul food of Okinawa. This soba is different from the Japanese version with pork belly and wheat noodles in a broth of pork and bonito stock. Okinawans have a practice called hara hachi bu, which translates as "8 parts out of 10, full." Basically they eat to feel good, not full. Dining also feels more intimate on tatami mats on the floor. Wash down the meal with the traditional Okinawan awamori -- a liquor fermented from rice.
8. There are touches of home.
With several U.S. military bases on Okinawa, there is an American influence here that can make a trip here less intimidating than the mainland Japan. English is understood many places on the Okinawa island, especially in the shopping districts or closer to the bases. Some restaurants will even have English menus.
For many Japanese tourists, Okinawa is actually a place to get a taste of America without a passport. So as an American visiting, this is one of the best chances you'll have to get a good burger and fries across all of Asia. One specialty you'll find here and just about nowhere else is taco rice, essentially a deconstructed taco atop a bed of rice.
9. It's dubbed the "Galapagos of the East".
There are plenty of places to seek out natural beauty in Okinawa. Iriomote, the largest of the Yaeyama Islands, offers hiking trails through primeval forests, kayaking through mangroves and the opportunity to spot endangered plants and wildlife. On the northern part of the main island of Okinawa, the Hiji Falls is a popular 2-mile hike with a big reveal at the end. A 30-minute ferry ride west of Naha, the islands of Zamami and Tokashiki are great spots for whale watching, as the humpback whales journey from Alaska down to the warm waters of Okinawa during the months of January through March.
10. There are several ways to visit.
Most travelers to Okinawa arrive by plane, with flights from 23 different Japanese airports plus China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand and South Korea to Okinawa. From Tokyo and Osaka, you can also fly direct to Ishigaki or Miyako if you wish to focus your trip on the outer islands.
If you start in Naha, you can fly to several islands, with flight times varying between 30 to 90 minutes. Standard and express ferries are also available to reach the outlying islands.
Okinawa is on the itinerary of many cruises through Asia -- departing from Japan, China or even longer cruises from the States. The cruises tend to stop in Okinawa for one or two days, so your experience will be focused on the main island of Okinawa or short day trips.
Tips for getting around Okinawa
- The main island has a monorail system (YuiRail) which reaches 15 stations in and around Naha, including the famous Shuri Castle. One- and two-day passes are available.
- For exploring more of the island, buses and taxis are an option. Taxis are cheaper in Okinawa compared with mainland Japan. If renting a car, keep in mind that Okinawans drive on the left side of the road.