Updated: Jan 2, 2021
Okinawa, often known as the Hawaii of Japan, is one of the most popular domestic tourism destinations in Japan but somehow often flies under the radar of international tourism. Whether this is due to the more remote location, distance from major cities like Tokyo and Osaka or just a difference in holiday preferences, Okinawa is set to be your ideal holiday destination. With beautiful tropical beaches, clear seas and a relaxed island culture, Okinawa is very unique among the Japanese standards of bustling cities and mountain ranges. With an area so rarely talked about, it might be difficult to know where to start but with this itinerary we have narrowed down some of the best parts of Okinawa to visit during a one week holiday.
Okinawa is a collection of islands in the far south of Japan. Falling between Kyushu and Taiwan, the climate is warm and tropical with this reflected in the environment of the islands. The islands are significant due to their traditional culture, which is distinctly different from that of mainland Japan. The Ryukyu Islands (now Okinawa) were taken by Japan in the 17th Century and so the culture, language, food and art developed very differently. There is also a large western influence on Okinawa due to the post-WWII US occupation and current US bases. These influences make Okinawa extremely unique and interesting, especially in contrast to other parts of Japan. A visit to Okinawa is not only a tropical holiday, but an interesting look into culture and history.
Day 1 - The main Island
So, where to start in Okinawa? The most common and easiest place to start is on Okinawa Main Island, home of the capital city Naha and a number of the main attractions.
In the north of the island, we have Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, regularly cited as Japan’s best aquarium and a great start to a tropical holiday. One of the highlights of the aquarium is the enormous Kuroshio tank, named after the warm Kuroshio current of Okinawa. This current influences the variety of marine life species in Okinawa and so is representative of Okinawa. The tank contains a lot of common marine life species from the area along with some more striking species, such as whale sharks and manta rays. There are also other more specialised tanks in the aquarium, including one dedicated to deep sea marine life and bioluminescent fish, a shark area with bull sharks and tiger sharks and a shallow tank with living starfish and shellfish that visitors can touch. This aquarium is a great way to ease gently into the ocean-focused life of Okinawa.
Around a 10-15 minute drive from the Churaumi Aquarium is the Nakijin castle ruins. The Nakijin castle was one of the original Ryukyu castles and is the second largest castle on the island. (The largest, Shuri Castle, is currently undergoing restoration after a devastating fire in 2019.) Naikijin Castle has largely been reduced to the surrounding walls which measure up to 8 metres in some places. The construction is very different to castles in mainland Japan as Ryukyu was largely influenced by Chinese construction techniques. The Nakijin castle is interesting to visit as much of the area has been taken back by nature and there is an interesting contrast between the resilience of human construction and the power of nature. There is also a small museum on site displaying items which have been unearthed from the castle grounds and exhibits about life in the area.
Day 2 - Kouri Island
Now it’s time to explore a bit further than the main island and so we head to Kouri Island. The island is able to be reached by bridge from Okinawa Main Island to Yagaji Island and then Yagaji Island to Kouri Island. Kouri Island is a very small island in the north of Okinawa, commonly known as the island of love. Tiinu Hama beach is well-known for its famous heart-shaped rock outcrops. Jutting out of the sea are two rocks shaped like hearts which have become known as a spiritual ‘power spot’ in Japan. There is also a legend on the island which mirrors that of Adam and Eve, ancestors of humankind, and further reinforcing its title as the island of love. Nearby is the secluded and beautiful Chigunu Hama beach. The cave in this area is considered to be the home of the Adam and Eve figures and so is a sacred site to local people. For a general beachside experience is Kouri Beach, located near the foot of Kouri Bridge. This is a popular spot for swimming and relaxing by the sea.
A great way to complete this relaxing day and a must-do while visiting Okinawa is a snorkelling or diving trip. This can be done through various companies on the island which offer snorkelling or diving packages and will ensure your safety while enjoying the experience. There are a number of beautiful coral reefs surrounding Okinawa which are ideal for snorkelling or diving, as well as the abundance of marine life to be seen.
Day 3 - The main Island and Zamami Island
For an interesting look into the history of Okinawa, there is the Okinawa Peace Park and Okinawa Peace Memorial Museum in the south of the main island. These cover the Battle of Okinawa, one of the worst battles that took place in the South Pacific region during WWII and the only ground fighting that took place on Japanese soil. The battle and subsequent US occupation is explored through exhibits in the Peace Memorial Museum and the nearby Former Navy Underground Headquarters provide further insight into the history. Visiting this area creates a sobering experience, similar to visiting the Peace Park of Hiroshima. However, the local aspect of this museum and park along with the ‘Spirit of Okinawa’ running through it makes it something different.
After quite a serious morning, Zamami Island provides a great way to relax and enjoy the surrounding beauty. Zamami is the most popular of a nearby collection of islands known as the Kerama Islands. Famous for their sparkling blue waters and white sands, the Kerama Islands are also home to beautiful forests and hills. Zamami Island can be reached by ferry. There are two main beaches on Zamami Island, and both are popular for swimming and nearby snorkelling or diving. There are a number observatory points on the island, which is ideal for those who just want to enjoy the view rather than swim. In the early months of the year there are whale-watching tours from Zamami Island and later in the year there are a number of glass-bottom boat tours. Zamami Island provides a range of beach and marine activities to suit any and all travellers.
Day 4 - The main Island
Okinawa World is a theme park based around Okinawan culture and nature. While it may seem touristy and inauthentic, it can be a good way to get an overall understanding of the culture of Okinawa. However, the main highlight of Okinawa World is the Gyokusendo Cave, the second longest natural cave in the entire country. 850 metres of this cave are open to the public and can be walked through. There are clean and well-maintained walking paths through the cave, making it safe and easy to explore a natural wonder. There are many impressive stalactites and stalagmites through the cave. Okinawa World also has a recreation of a traditional Ryukyu village with workshops on various traditional crafts and a snake museum dedicated to the famous local Habu snake.
To experience more of Okinawa’s cities, it is time to enjoy Naha, the capital of Okinawa. Kokusai Dori, translated as International Street, is the main street of Naha and is lined with some of the best restaurants, bars, cafés and shops. There are a number of small shopping arcades which branch off Kokusai Dori which are ideal for shopping from small independent shops and local artisans.
Makishi Public Market is close to Kokusai Dori and is a great place to head in the evening for a truly Okinawan dinner. This is Okinawa’s main food and produce market with many unique items available. It is possible to buy fish or meat on the first floor and have it cooked on the second floor at your request, or to buy already cooked food from a number of the eateries in the market. There are also a number of tropical fruits and vegetables delivered from the local farms, such as goya (bittermelon) and hechima (sponge gourd). Exploring this market is a great way to experience the local culture and cuisine.
Day 5 - Ishigaki Island
After a few days exploring the main island, it is time to venture further. Ishigaki Island is another large island in the Okinawa prefecture and is located a short 1 hour flight from Naha.
Ishigaki Island is one of the best spots in the world for diving to see manta rays. While these beautiful creatures are rarely visible in most areas, in Ishigaki it is possible to dive and watch them. When it is not manta season, there are also many other unique fish and marine life, including cuttlefish, turtles and glassfish.
As an afternoon trip or, for those who skip the manta rays, as a day trip, there is Taketomi Island, located a short 10 minute ferry ride from Ishigaki. Taketomi is the site of the last remaining intact Ryukyu village. This village has been carefully preserved for hundreds of years and now serves as look back in time. Walking through the village shows the unique architecture of the area with low rooves and ‘shisa’ guardians – a half dog, half lion statue that protects the house. A common activity on the island is a water buffalo cart tour. These tours take around 30 minutes and the tour guide can give real insight into Okinawan history and culture.
Day 6 - Ishigaki Island
Kabira Bay is commonly considered the number one tourist spot of Ishigaki Island and images of the bay are often seen as representative of Okinawa as a whole. The beautiful green waters and white sands are indicative of the pristine beaches of Okinawa. Kabira Bay is one of the few locations where black pearls are cultivated. Due to the need to protect the pearls and because of the strong currents, swimming is prohibited at this beach. However, the nearby lookout provides amazing views over the bay. There are also a number of glass-bottom boats that tour the area and show the diverse and vibrant coral and marine life.
If you are looking for a beach where you can swim, there is Sunset Beach on the north area of Ishigaki Island. This is one of the few beaches where swimming is allowed even in low tide. There are also a number of marine sports enjoyed in the area, including stand-up paddleboarding, wakeboarding and jetski activities.
Iriomote Island is a great option for a fun afternoon trip for something a little different. Iriomote Island is located near Ishigaki Island and can be reached via ferry in 35 – 50 minutes, depending on which port you wish to dock at. Iriomote is actually Okinawa’s second largest island, but it is mostly undeveloped. The majority of the land is covered by Iriomote Ishigaki National Park, a large jungle and mangrove forested park. The beautiful and unique nature of this island can be explored via hiking, kayaking and river cruises. This is one of the few areas of Japan which has been left largely undisturbed and so is an amazing experience.
Day 7 - Naha
For the final day it is time to head back to the main island of Okinawa with a 1 hour flight to Naha.
Once back on the main island, a great way to finish off a trip to Okinawa is by enjoying some of the best local beaches, as chosen by those who live there. These include the Mibaru Beach and Hyakuna Beach, located next to each other in the south of the island. Mibaru Beach is beautiful beach with clear water and gentle seas where visitors can enjoy swimming or glass-bottom boats. Hyakuna Beach is the much quieter beach which is kept in its completely natural state due to it’s sacred status among locals. The beach is revered as it is one of the first places the Ryukyu goddess of creation Amamikyo walked. Hyakuna Beach and Mibaru Beach are both beautiful relaxing spots to enjoy the final day of a wonderful trip to Okinawa.
While Okinawa has long been enjoyed by Japanese tourists, it is regularly missed by international tourists. However, it is one of the most beautiful, most unique and most interesting parts of Japan. A week in Okinawa is a wonderful week in tropical paradise, a getaway from the hustle and bustle of cities and a look into one of Japan’s most interesting cultures. Here we have an ideal itinerary for the perfect week in Okinawa.