The name Okinawa means "rope in the open sea", a fairly apt description of this long stretch of islands between the main islands of Japan and Taiwan. Consisting of 49 inhabited islands and 111 uninhabited islands, Okinawa has a subtropical to tropical climate, and is a popular beach holiday destination for Japanese, with frequent flights from all the major cities of Japan. While visitors from nearby countries are increasingly discovering Okinawa's charms, the number still remains low compared to the tourist destinations on mainland Japan.
Once the independent Ryukyu Kingdom (Japanese: 琉球王国 Ryūkyū Ōkoku, Okinawan: 琉球國 Ruuchuu Kuku), which was a tributary state of imperial China, the islands were first invaded and brought under the control of Satsuma (modern-day Kagoshima) in 1609, who allowed them to continue maintaining their tributary relationship with China. This arrangement allowed the Satsuma domain to use them as a conduit for trade with China, to the profit of all three parties.
However, Ryūkyū was annexed outright by Japan during the Meiji Restoration in 1879, which Qing China was by then powerless to stop, and the Japanese proceeded to impose punitive taxes and did their best to suppress indigenous culture, language and religion. With little time to adjust to their new status as Japanese citizens, the people were nervous about nearby wars and in order to escape and with the encouragement of the government, they unknowingly moved right into soon-to-be war zones, such as Saipan and other Pacific Islands. Those who stayed however, were no better off. As the tides turned against Japan, US forces slowly took control of the Pacific until it was clear that Okinawa would become a battlefield; see Pacific War.
The Americans landed on the main island on April 1 and took control of the central part of the island in just three days and then proceeded to take the northern half in a relatively short time. They expected strong resistance but were surprised to find many people willingly surrender. With most of the island under American control, the US turned its eyes south where the capital Naha was located and the further south they moved, the stronger the resistance became. For the locals, survival was difficult. The Americans bombed the island relentlessly and burned all vegetation in an attempt to flush out hidden threats. Many people hid in caves (of which there are many) and in the turtleback Ryukyu tombs, but naturally, Japanese military members also used these locations to hide and attack from, so they were targeted by US forces whenever they were discovered. Because Okinawa had not been a prefecture for long, the Japanese military did not fully trust them and did not value them as equals. These views in combination with military needs superseding all other needs, the Okinawan people were forced to give up their food to the military, walk out into battlefields to fetch water, go out on suicide missions, or to kill themselves. Those who refused military orders were killed. Both military and locals were aware of the hopeless, dire situation. Most people thought about how they wanted to die as the idea that they could survive didn't seem possible. Many people committed suicide by hugging grenades, drinking cyanide, or throwing themselves off of cliffs. Others chose to die fighting in futile attacks with just stones and hand-made weapons (sometimes coerced or forced by military members hiding with them). Many also died of starvation. Americans burned the entire southern part of the island free of almost all vegetation, and made their way from cave to cave trying to make sure the area was secure. While many people were taken alive, the brutal battle also meant that the Americans sometimes chose to toss grenades or blowing flamethrowers indiscriminately into the caves rather than risking resistance, killing many innocent people. There are also eyewitness accounts of some civilians being taken out of the caves and torched.
Those who surrendered, found, or were captured by American troops were taken as POWs. Many of the POWs starved to death and many of those who were taken to camps in the north got malaria and died as Okinawa was not malaria-free at that time. By the end of the war, 120,000 Okinawans or one fourth of the island's population were killed. 90,000 of those were civilians, and many so-called military casualties included boys as young as elementary school who were enlisted in desperation.
After the war, women were forced to work to try and rebuild their communities as the number of males still alive was only about half of what is was pre-war. The local economy relied heavily on the US military but American presence also prevented progress, as most of the island was off-limits to Okinawans and travel between Okinawa and the mainland was also restricted. This led to strong resentment among the people, and although early independence movements were quelled, over time the discontent and anger was too much for the US to ignore. Nearly thirty years after the war and after many years of protesting and fighting to regain control of their island, occupation finally ended in 1972, but land was still set aside for the US to hold military bases. The US bases still take up 20% of the total island territory, and sporadic protests against US military presence continue to occur, but repeated polls show that most Okinawans do not object to the presence of the bases.
When the US handed control of the island back to the Okinawans, they were able to develop it. Over time, they've been able to move from an economy reliant on US military spending to an economy whose main source of income is now tourism which continues to grow to this day.
With their own language and customs, Okinawans regard themselves as different from the mainland Japanese and some still harbor a certain degree of resentment towards the mainland for the brutal way the islands were treated as colonies and during World War II. Okinawans proudly call themselves uchinanchu (沖縄人) or "sea people" in the local dialect and talk of the way things are done on the shima (島) or island(s), in contrast to the ways of the mainland, known as hontō (本島) in standard Japanese, yamato (ヤマト) in the local dialect, and sometimes as the slightly derisive local slang naichi (内地). Due to its history as a tributary of imperial China, Okinawan culture has a stronger Chinese influence than mainland Japanese culture, and continues to celebrate local festivals according to the Chinese calendar.
Okinawa's most famous export worldwide is the martial art of karate. In recent years Okinawan culture has become quite popular throughout Japan thanks to popular musicians and local foods. Okinawan music is very attractive and unique because of the mixture of original Okinawan sounds and American rock, jazz, and other sounds from the USA. The distinctive instrument of choice is the sanshin (三線), a three-stringed, banjo-like distant relative of the mainland's shamisen, whose pentatonic melodies are instantly recognizable. The island has produced a disproportionate amount of musicians, most famously J-pop singer Namie Amuro, and The Boom's electric-guitar-and-sanshin Shimauta ("Island Song") has been dubbed Okinawa's unofficial national anthem — even though the group actually hails from mainland Yamanashi.
On the roof or at the gate of almost every house you will spot the ubiquitous Okinawan shīsa or guardian lion-dogs, one with its mouth open to catch good fortune, the other with its mouth closed to keep good fortune in.
|Daily highs (°C)||19.5||19.8||21.7||24.1||26.7||29.7||31.8||31.5||30.4||27.9||24.6||21.2|
|Nightly lows (°C)||14.6||14.8||16.5||19.0||21.8||24.8||26.8||26.6||25.5||23.1||19.9||16.3|
The above measurements are for Naha City.
Source: Japan Meteorological Agency.
Most of Okinawa is subtropical, with the southern extremities (Yaeyama and the outlying islands) fully tropical. Even in January and February, the average high temperature is around 20°C (68°F), making the area a popular winter getaway, although it's often cloudy and usually a little too cold for sunbathing due to the winter monsoon. Spring, around late March and April, is an excellent time to visit if you take care to avoid Golden Week (a succession of national holidays from the end of April), however, it does not get busy at all on the small islands even during Golden Week. The rainy season starts early in May and continues until June. Unlike the rainy season in mainland Japan, it rains neither every day nor all day long during the rainy season in Okinawa. Summer in Okinawa is hot and humid but still one of the peak visiting seasons, while September brings a succession of fierce typhoons. October and November are again good times to visit.
- Naha - the capital of the Okinawa Prefecture
- Chatan - some resort hotels and beaches
- Okinawa City - the second-largest city
- Nago - home of the enormous Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium
- Okinawa Island (Okinawa-hontō) — the largest island in both size and population, featuring administrative capital Naha
- Kerama Islands — a cluster of small coral islands between Kume and Okinawa
A smattering of tiny islands several hundred kilometers to the east, only two of them inhabited.
Natural monuments, great beaches and amazing diving. Occasionally lumped together with the Yaeyamas as the Sakishima Islands.
- Irabu — the "other island" of Miyako
- Miyako — by far the largest of the three main islands that make up the group
- Shimoji — very close to Irabu, but not quite as large
- Tarama — known for its August festival
Lush and tropical, closer to Taiwan than to Okinawa Island.
- Hateruma — the southernmost inhabited point of Japan
- Ishigaki — the hub of the Yaeyamas, with spectacular beaches and manta rays
- Iriomote — jungles and the mysterious Iriomote wild cat
- Taketomi — small island off Ishigaki, known for a carefully restored Ryukyu village
- Yonaguni — the westernmost point of Japan, with mysterious ruins and hammerhead sharks
- Kuro — tiny island mildly famous for having (way) more cows than people
Most visitors arrive in Naha, the capital of Okinawa, which is also well served by low-cost carriers like Skymark and Jetstar. Domestic flights do connect major Japanese cities directly to some other Okinawan islands like Miyako and Ishigaki, but prices can be steep; for example, the standard one-way fare for Tokyo-Ishigaki is a whopping ¥50,000. Using an international airpass like Star Alliance's Visit Japan or JAL's Welcome to Japan, both of which allow domestic flights in Japan for ¥10,000, may allow considerable savings.
Ferry services to Okinawa have been cut drastically, with Arimura Sangyo filing for bankruptcy and RKK Line stopping passenger services entirely. With long travel times, bumpy seas, frequent cancellations in the fall typhoon season and prices that aren't any cheaper than flying, it's easy to see why this isn't too popular anymore.
As of 2014, the only survivors are A-Line Ferry, aka Maru-A (マルエー), which runs twice a week from Kagoshima (25 hours, ¥16,000 2nd class one-way) and once a week from both Osaka/Kobe and Tokyo (44 hours, ¥28,000) to Naha, and Marix Line, which runs between Kagoshima and Naha only. All ferries call at various minor islands including Yoron and Amami Oshima along the way. Note that if you don't speak Japanese, you will find it easier to book through a travel agent.
In additional, Star Cruises operates irregular cruises from Keelung, Taiwan to Naha via Ishigaki and Miyako. The service operates in summer months only (June-Sep). Two-night cruises in the cheapest cabin booked in advance start from TWD 15,000 for a single traveller.
Ferry and air connections link the islands together, but many of them are simply so small in population that scheduled services may be infrequent and prices vary.
Flights between the islands are mostly handled by Japan Transocean Air (JTA) and its subsidiary Ryukyu Air Commuter (RAC), both owned by JAL. ANA's subsidiary Air Nippon (ANK) also has a limited network radiating out from Naha. If you plan on traveling extensively in the region by plane, consider JTA's Okinawa Island Pass, which allows two to five flights for ¥9000 each.
There are dense webs of ferry links between nearby islands, but only infrequent cargo boats ply lengthier routes like Naha-Ishigaki. If traveling by boat in late summer, note that the area around Okinawa is known as Typhoon Alley for a reason.
Probably more so than anywhere else in Japan, the trainless main island of Okinawa is a car culture, which makes car rental an attractive option for longer stays. Be prepared to drive on the left side of the road and to show your International Drivers License. Military and other SOFA personnel may obtain driving privileges via their own installation procedures.
International Drivers Licenses are not accepted in Japan, if you are from Switzerland, Germany, France, Belgium, Slovenia, Monaco or Taiwan. Instead, you need an authorised Japanese translation of your national drivers license. The translation is issued in the JAF Office (Japanese Automobile Foundation) in 1-48-7 Maeda Urasoe-shi. This took approximately one hour in January 2016. The costs for the translation are ¥3,000.
Most islands of interest in Okinawa have at least a rudimentary bus network, although schedules may be sparse and prices fairly high (eg. over ¥2000 to cross the main island). Times and routes (usually in both English and Japanese) are indicated at each bus stop and at the various bus terminals. Prices outside of Naha are based on distance travel and are indicated in the front of the bus as it moves from sector to sector (your ticket, that you take as you enter the bus, has a sector number on it). There is a changer for 1000 yen bills and coins at the front of the bus. Keep your ticket until you leave the bus. You pay the fare on alighting and it might be, that the bus driver wants to see your ticket with the sector number.
Most people come to Okinawa for the sun and beaches. Even in midwinter, when many areas of the mainland Japan teeter around the freezing point, temperatures rarely dip below 15°C in Okinawa. For more adventurous types, the vast yet almost uninhabited island of Iriomote is covered in dense jungle.
Cultural attractions are rather more limited, as the Japanese invasion and subsequent brutal colonization coupled with fighting in World War II did a regrettably thorough job of eliminating most traces of the Ryukyu Kingdom, but two standouts are the newly rebuilt Shuri Castle in Naha on Okinawa Island, and the carefully preserved tiny village of Taketomi in the southern Yaeyama Islands.
Historical sites related to World War II can be found throughout the islands, especially the main island of Okinawa, including the Peace Memorial Park in Naha, the navy's former underground headquarters and the Himeyuri Monument.
Churaumi Aquarium is a world class aquarium located on the Motobu peninsula. Attractions include one of the world’s largest tanks with huge whale sharks and manta rays. The aquarium is located in Ocean Expo Park with a beautiful public facility called Emerald Beach.
Okinawa is the best place in Japan for all sorts of watersports.
Snorkeling and Diving
The Okinawa archipelago is one of the world's best diving destinations, with the count of marine species on par with the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. You can find over 400 types of corals, 5 types of sea turtles, manta rays, whale sharks, hammerhead sharks and many kinds of tropical fish. The main downside is that's quite expensive compared to, say, South-East Asia — a whole day's diving off a boat (2-3 dives including insurance and lunch) costs between ¥12,000 and ¥17,000, depending on the season and island, plus an additional cost between ¥3,000 and ¥5,000 if you need gear rental. For a 3-day certification course you will need to pay between ¥30,000 and ¥60,000, depending on the season and number of participants. Fortunately, a lot of the diving on Okinawa can be done from the shore (no boat needed), in which case you can get full gear rental and tanks for around ¥5,000, or if you just need tanks (and can guide yourself) then it will only be around ¥500 per tank. To top it off many shops do not accept credit cards, so you will need to carry a thick wad of yen to pay for it all. The language barrier can also be an issue, with most shops only set up to cater to Japanese-speaking tourists, although Piranha Divers Okinawa  and Onna Sensui Diving Shop  in Onna Village, Reef Encounters  in Chatan or Bluefield  in Kadena on Okinawa Island, and Umicōza on Ishigaki are welcome exceptions.
Most Japanese diving terminology is imported straight from English (finzu, masuku, regyurētā, etc), but the following terms are not:
If all this does not put you off, there is some world-class diving to look forward to: particular highlights include the gorgeous reefs surrounding the Kerama Islands, the manta rays of Miyako and Ishigaki and the hammerhead sharks and underwater ruins of Yonaguni. The waters are generally divable all year, although water temperature fluctuates between 22°C in the winter to around 29°C in summer. Also, beware of the typhoons during June-November and the north wind that may frequently close diving sites in the north shores of many of the islands during November and December. Many people dive in boardshorts and rashguards half the year. Most Japanese divers wear a 5mm full-body wetsuit, and dive shops usually provide aluminum tanks with American-style fittings.
Sailing is gaining in popularity in Okinawa. There is a small but passionate international sailing community centered at Ginowan Marina, near the Convention Center. Local and international sailors cruise and race to the Kerama islands and to other locations. Sailing cruises and classes are also conducted out of Ginowan Marina. To learn more, check out: www.Sail-Okinawa.com.
Surfing is popular in Okinawa, but it's not particularly easy: waves break over very shallow shelves of reef and/or basaltic rock, resulting in challenging waves. Surfing spots can be found all over the archipelago, but most surfers surf off the main island. Check out Mensore Surfing for weather forecasts and up-to-date info.
Okinawa has some of the best offshore fishing in the world. Some fish are seasonal, but there are fish for every season of the year. Marlin, mahi mahi, and various species of tuna are some of the fish that are teeming in Okinawa's crystal clear seas. There are many places where you can find a boat to go fishing, but as with diving, language can be a major issue. Some charter services provide fishing tackle, and others require you to rent fishing gear. The 2008-2009 Issue of "Okinawa Island Guide" has featured Saltwater Fishing Okinawa for catering to Japanese, English, and Chinese speaking travelers.
The cost for offshore fishing in Okinawa is comparable to other charter services around the world. Usually about $100 US Dollars per person for walk on charters, and up to $1,500 US Dollars for private charters.
Okinawan cuisine is distinctly different from that of mainland Japan. Unlike the simplicity of classical Japanese food, which tries to highlight individual ingredients, Okinawa is a champurū (mixed) cuisine, where lots of ingredients can be used in a single dish to create complex, balanced flavors -- aptly enough, the very word seems to originate from the Malay campur. Thanks to its notable Taiwanese influence, Okinawans too proudly proclaim that they use every part of the pig except the squeal and pork makes an appearance in almost every dish, including bits like ears, trotters and blood which are generally disdained by the Japanese. Even Spam has a distinct following.
Other Okinawan ingredients include vegetables rarely seen on the Japanese mainland such as bitter melon (ゴーヤー gōyā) and purple yam (紫芋 murasaki-imo). Local seaweeds like the gloopy mozuku (モズク), often served in vinegar or mixed into porridge, or fluffy green āsa (アーサ), hiding in soups, often get credit for Okinawans' life expectancy, the longest in the world. Okinawan tropical fruits including mango, papaya, pineapple, dragonfruit and the sour lime-like calamansi (シークァーサー shīkwāsā) are delicious when in season. Dark cane sugar (黒砂糖 kurosatō) is also a popular snack, eaten both as is and made into a vast variety of candies and pastries.
Some dishes worth trying:
- Gōyā champurū (ゴーヤーチャンプルー) is the canonical Okinawan dish, a stir-fry made from goya mixed with pork and tofu. There are lots of other champurūs as well, made with tofu, noodles, fu (gluten), etc.
- Gurukun (グルクン) is no less than the official fish of Okinawa prefecture. Small but tasty and prepared in a variety of ways, even the bones are edible.
- Okinawa soba (沖縄そば) is made with wheat noodles and a pork-based stock. Often served with sōki (ソーキ), stewed pork ribs, and spiced up with a dash of shima-koshō (島胡椒) island pepper or shima-tōgarashi (島唐辛子) chillies.
- Hirayāchī (ヒラヤーチー), an okonomiyaki-like thin savoury pancake.
- Raftī (ラフティー) is a side dish consisting of very fatty cubes of stewed pork.
- Shima-dofu (島豆腐) is the Okinawan version of tofu, coarser in texture than the Japanese kind and often served warm.
- Sātāandagī (サーターアンダギー) are deep-fried balls of dough also aptly known as Okinawan donuts.
Okinawan chinmi or "strange foods", eaten as snacks with drinking, include:
- Chiragā (チラガー), the skin from a pig's face; can be very chewy
- Mimigā (ミミガー), sliced pork ears in vinegar; crunchy and nearly tasteless
- Umibudō (海ぶどう) or "sea grapes", a type of seaweed eaten raw dipped into vinegar or soy, mild with a pleasant caviar-like texture
- Sukugarasu (スクガラス), salt-pickled tiny fermented fish, usually pressed onto tofu before eating
Aficionados of American fast food may find Okinawa to be a curious treat, as many American restaurants popped up here to serve the US military long before they made it to the mainland. Most prominent is the presence of A&W outlets serving hamburgers and root beer (with free refills, even), available practically nowhere else in Japan. Blue Seal ice cream is common, with their purple yam soft ice creams worth a lick. Several hybrid Okinawan-American dishes, most of which seem to employ copious quantities of Spam, are widely available:
- Nuuyaru burger (ぬーやるバーガー), a speciality of local fast food chain Jef, is gōyā champurū, cheese and a slice of Spam in a bun. Appropriately enough, the name is an Okinawan pun that translates roughly as "What on earth is this?".
- Pork eggs (ポーク卵 pōku tamago) consists of fried slices of Spam served with ketchup, scrambled eggs and — since this is Japan, after all — rice and miso soup.
- Taco rice (タコライス tako raisu) is spiced Mexican-style taco meat with cheese, lettuce and tomatoes, but instead of being in a tortilla, it's on rice.
The local brew of choice is awamori (泡盛), a notoriously strong rice liquor that can contain up to 60% alcohol, although 30-40% is more common. Unlike Japanese shochu, which is usually prepared from potatoes or barley, awamori is brewed using imported Thai jasmine rice since during the days of the Ryukyu Kingdom, short-grain rice could not be brought in from the main islands. It's most commonly drunk on the rocks or neat.
Awamori keeps well, and when stored more than three years is known as kūsu (古酒, also read koshu in standard Japanese). If the label indicates a specific age, it's 100% at least that old; however, kūsu without a given age is usually a blend of 50% 3-year-old and 50% new awamori.
If awamori is a bit too strong for your taste, try awamori umeshu (泡盛梅酒), a delectable sweet liquor made by infusing Japanese ume plums in awamori and cane sugar. Lemon and coffee-flavored versions of awamori are also available.
Okinawa's local beer Orion is a safer alternative, at least in small quantities. Most larger islands also have their own microbreweries.
Naha has the busy nightlife scene you'd expect of a large city, livened up by the presence of many GIs from the military bases. Kadena and Chatan, near Kadena Air Base, also have many bars catering to the military.
Okinawa has many live houses in Naha city and Okinawa city, with styles ranging from Okinawan traditional folk music to American rock, jazz and other sounds from the USA. The charge depends on the artist but it’s usually about ¥1000-3500, plus one drink. Check the time, the artist, and the price before you go.
Broadly speaking, accommodation on Okinawa can be divided into two brackets: cheap basic lodges, and expensive fancy resorts. Another option is sleeping in campsites.
Okinawa has a multitude of cheap minshuku-type lodges geared towards poor surfers and divers, and unlike the mainland many offer or even specialize in bed-only (素泊まり sudomari) stays with no meals included. The very cheapest dorm-type places can go for less than ¥2,000, although you'll usually be looking at a minimum of ¥3,000 for your own room and around ¥5,000 if you want two meals. Watch out for hidden charges for things like air-con, fridge rental or even using the shower.
In Naha you can easily find dirt-cheap places starting from ¥1,000 per night.
There are many campsites around Okinawa, some on nice beaches. They offer cheap accommodation if you have your own tent and sleeping bag (and mat) for ¥500-1,000/night. Their facilities are sometimes very poor, they have only cold shower for example (and they even charge you for using it!) and no cooking/cleaning facilities. However they often rent out BBQ sets (¥2,000-3,000) which can make the night unforgettable.
B&B-type pensions are the most common midrange option, although there are some city hotels also. Figure on around ¥10,000/person with two meals.
The other end of the spectrum is Okinawa's host of resorts, usually located on a private beach in some remote corner of the island — which means you'll be stuck eating at the resort's expensive restaurant and using their expensive watersports services. Rack rates for these places tend to be ludicrous (¥20,000+/head/night), but you can usually get steep discounts by buying flight and hotel packages, especially in the low season.
Er, excuse me?
One of the most distinctive features of modern Okinawan is appending the English ending -er for people who do, well, pretty much anything. The meaning of "boozer" (ブーザー) is fairly obvious, while a "shrimper" (シュリンパー) is just somebody who likes shrimp. However, the common semi-affectionate "beacher" (ビーチャ―) does not refer to someone who enjoys healthy marine sports, it means an alcoholic drunk!
Okinawa has its own language group, known as Ryukyuan (琉球語 ryūkyūgo in Japanese), which it shares (along with much of its culture) with the Amami Islands in Kagoshima prefecture. These languages are related to Japanese (together, they form the "Japonic family"), but are generally incomprehensible to Japanese speakers. The largest of these languages, the Okinawan language (Okinawan: 沖縄口 uchinaaguchi, Japanese: 沖縄語 okinawago), is spoken on the main island of Okinawa and the surrounding islands, and is not used much these days. Most people under 20 can't speak it, the most common exceptions being people who were raised by their grandparents and people who grew up in rural areas. To further complicate things, each of Okinawa's major islands has its own distinct dialect, such as Miyako, Yaeyama and Yonaguni, some of which are different enough to be considered their own languages by some.
In the Daito Islands, the obscure Hachijo dialect of Japanese by immigrants from the Hachijo Islands is the native language. The Hachijo-Daito dialects are direct descendants of the Eastern dialect of Old Japanese, while all mainland dialects are descendants of the Western dialect.
All Okinawans speak standard Japanese, and many understand English as well, particularly on the main island which has several large US military bases.
Okinawa is as safe as mainland Japan or more so. On the smaller islands it's not uncommon to leave front doors not merely unlocked, but open all day.
The number one health risk on Okinawa is sunburn, and it doesn't take long at all to get fried to a crisp when it's sunny outside. Slap on plenty of lotion.
Okinawa is also home to Japan's most fearsome array of poisonous critters. While the venomous habu (ハブ) snake gets a lot of bad press, mostly due to its unfortunate habit of entering homes in search of rats and mice; not only are you quite unlikely to encounter one outside a sake bottle in a souvenir shop, but bites have a fatality rate of "only" 3%. Jellyfish (クラゲ kurage) and a variety of marine creatures that sting if stepped on present a risk, and many beaches have posters in Japanese (and occasionally English) explaining what to watch out for.
- There are ferries to Taiwan.