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Snapshot: Okinawa Islands

October 09, 2023

Japan’s own tropical idyll is a heady blend of beautiful beaches, rich culture and absorbing history

Okinawa, an up-and-coming tropical paradise and Japan’s southernmost prefecture, is made up of about 160 islands. Think: white sand, sapphire waters, subtropical climate – the perfect beach break is only a two-hour flight from Tokyo. A world-renowned diving destination, these postcard-perfect islands are packed with vibrant coral reefs and loads of unspoilt, natural beauty. 

The beautiful rock formation and pristine beach of Ishigaki Island in Okinawa on a clear day.
The beautiful rock formation and pristine beach of Ishigaki Island in Okinawa on a clear day.

Daytripper

It’s relatively easy to island-hop around the three island chains – Okinawa, Miyako, Yaeyama – that make up Okinawa Prefecture. Yaeyama, less populated than the other two, is known for jungle-like, lush landscapes. 

Tourist boats and yatchs at Kabira Bay in Ishigaki Island.
Tourist boats and yatchs at Kabira Bay in Ishigaki Island.

Each island has its own special charm. Kume Island is renowned for pristine white sand beaches, Iriomote Island for lush mangrove forests and the Kerama Islands for bright cobalt blue waters.

On Taketomi Island, there are no vehicles so transport is by bicycle or water buffalo. Take a buffalo cart tour around the island or even over to Yubu Island (it’s a leisurely ride, about 400 metres away), a tiny island that consists entirely of an enchanting subtropical botanical garden. 

Two female tourists taking a photo of the approaching water buffalo carriage in Taketomi Island.
Two female tourists taking a photo of the approaching water buffalo carriage in Taketomi Island.

History buffs have lots to see 

Okinawa’s long and complex history makes for a tropical holiday that’s equal parts relaxing and intriguing. During World War II, the 90-day Battle of Okinawa was a fierce battle during which a quarter of the civilian population died. Exploring the elaborate underground network of tunnels and bunkers at the Former Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters is an eerie experience, where so many Japanese sailors ended their lives as troops closed in. The Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum is home to many displays that commemorate victims of the war and share this painful history with future generations. 

The Okinawa Peace Memorial Hall is dedicated to the Battle of Okinawa during the World War II.
The Okinawa Peace Memorial Hall is dedicated to the Battle of Okinawa during the World War II.

Remnants of Ryukyu rule

Okinawa’s special, proud culture is thanks in large part to its past as the Ryukyu Kingdom, before becoming part of Japan in 1879. Traditional Okinawan language is still part of cultural activities like folk music and dance, but generally, the locals speak mainland Japanese with a distinctive accent. It’s the birthplace of karate – under Ryukyu rule, weapons were banned and locals defended themselves with their bare hands.

Teenagers wearing traditional Okinawan Ryusou costumes in the Eisa Parade.
Teenagers wearing traditional Okinawan Ryusou costumes in the Eisa Parade.

Shuri Castle, the ancient royal capital in Naha and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a much-loved icon of Okinawan history and culture. Explore Yaima Village on Ishigaki Island, a well-preserved Ryukyu village where you can tour a traditional hut and enjoy cultural experiences like music, dance and food. 

The UNESCO World Heritage site of Shuri Castle with many tourists visiting the castle.
The UNESCO World Heritage site of Shuri Castle with many tourists visiting the castle.

The secrets to a long and happy life

Okinawans are known for their long life expectancy, more than anywhere else – even the rest of Japan, the longest-lived ethnic group in the world. It’s theorised that their longevity is due to factors like their relaxed island lifestyle, community and spirituality – but largely their traditional diet, which is mostly plant-based, low-fat and low-salt, with staples like purple sweet potato and seaweed. 

A typical healthy Okinawan lunch set consisting of seaweed, fish and other vegetables.
A typical healthy Okinawan lunch set consisting of seaweed, fish and other vegetables.

Lots to celebrate

Japan loves a matsuri (festival), especially in Okinawa, where the locals are known for their strong sense of community and lust for life. From folk dancing at the All-Okinawa Eisa Festival, to the re-enacted coronation of the first Ryukyu king at the Shuri Castle Festival or one of the many hari (traditional Okinawan dragon boat race) events, there’s plenty to enjoy. Pray for good health and harvest at the Naha Great Tug-of-War, which started in the 15th century and uses a 200-metre-long rope made of rice straw

The re-enactment of the coronation performance at Shuri Jo Castle.
The re-enactment of the coronation performance at Shuri Jo Castle.

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