Lush jungle, sandy beaches, coral reefs and karate define Okinawa, a holiday-friendly group of more than 100 subtropical islands that extend across 700 kilometres of the South China Sea from Kyushu to Yonaguni-jima, almost within sight of Taiwan.
Part of the Ryukyu island chain, Okinawa's beaches and dive sites are in stark contrast to the temples and shrines of mainland Japan, while another oddity is the presence of the US military at a number of island bases. In Okinawa's capital, Naha, Okinawan textiles and ceramics are made in the shadow of Shuri-jo, a World heritage-listed recreation of the Ryukyu kingdom's most important castle. On tiny Taketomi, buffalo-drawn carts trundle around a typical village of red-roofed bungalows. Others, such as Iriomote, are covered in jungle, while remote Ishihaki boasts palm-tree-lined beaches and sparkling seas.
Okinawa Main Island
Stretching more than 100 kilometers from north to south, Okinawa’s main island is the largest and most populated of the archipelago. And, it's the most diverse, too. In the north, dramatic karst landscapes share the spotlight with national-park forests, remote capes and authentic villages, as well as some Okinawa's most luxurious resorts. Take the chance for an island-hopping adventure, perhaps visiting Ie Island with its emerald waters and seasonal lily and hibiscus flowers, overlooked by the cragged form of Mt. Gusuku. Or, head to Yonbaru to explore lush forests, verdant mangroves and limestone peaks on everything from waterfall hikes to kayaking adventures.
In the central region, you'll discover Okinawa’s creative side, showcased in its famed pottery industry. There are also gorgeous island drives to enjoy, perhaps taking in Yomitan Village with its rich Ryukyu culture, pristine white sands and crystal clear seas, while the likes of Chatan and Koza are the island's entertainment hubs. Visit here for popular beaches, lively shopping and delicious oceanfront dining.
The south of the main island is the beating heart of Okinawan culture. Explore the history of the royal family at Shurijo Castle Park and the Tama-udun mausoleum, then get spiritual at sacred Sefa Utaki. Enjoy more excellent shopping, dining, entertainment, and nightlife in Naha, or head further south to Itoman or Nanjo for sprawling limestone caves, pristine beaches and to reflect on Okinawa’s somber WWII history.
Shuriemon – Naha, Okinawa Main Island (image: OCVB)
Flung far out in the East China Sea, 400 km south of Okinawa's main island, the stunning Yaeyama Islands represent Japan's remotest outpost. Still, despite their location, they remain one of Okinawa's most popular destinations, one that offers a rich variety of experiences from exploring wildlife-rich mangroves to diving with hammerhead sharks. And, the beaches are spectacular, too, with powder-soft sands and impossibly clear seas to enjoy.
Yaeyama Islands, Japan
Gateway to this subtropical paradise is Ishigaki Island, an idyllic setting with sweeping ocean views and a healthy dose of traditional island culture. Part of Iriomote-Ishigaki National Park, visitors here can go stargazing and explore seas rich in wildlife on everything from scuba diving trips to glass-bottom boat rides, spotting the likes of sea turtles and manta rays.
There's also the island's cultural heritage to enjoy, showcased in traditional songs and poems that are the fabric of island life. And, be sure to delve into the local craft scene, particularly the unique Ishigaki-yaki pottery, distinguished by its mesmerising blue-green patterns and dark glaze made from the island’s mineral ore.
Traditional Okinawan dancing