Okinawa, an island off mainland Japan, is one of travellers’ favourite for its laid back lifestyle and dramatic coastlines. Hailed for its flourishing marine life, there is no lack of snorkellers and scuba-divers. However, there is more to Okinawa island waiting to be explored.
This is a concise guide to Okinawa – from its culture, to the must-try local food, and places you should never miss!
If you’re looking for hotels in Okinawa, these are the lowest prices for our Top 3 best value for money hotels in Okinawa:
- #1 Hotel JAL City Naha (Most Popular)
- #2 Daiwa Roynet Hotel Naha Omoromachi
- #3 Daiwa Roynet Hotel Okinawa Kenchomae
History of Okinawa
1. It was not part of Japan until Edo period.
Today, we all know Okinawa as the southern most prefecture of Japan, but do you know it was not part of Japan until the Edo period? The different islands littered around the region were unified under Ryukyu Kingdom. However, the invasion of Ryukyu Kingdom by forces of the Japanese feudal domain of Satsuma in 1609 marked the Ryukyu Kingdom’s status as a vassal state under Satsuma.
2. Okinawan language is a Japanese dialect now
Okinawan was never a spoken Japanese language in the earlier days. The official language of the Ryukyu Kingdom was a Shuri-Naha variant, which is labelled as a dialect now by the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages. This language is often referred to as Okinawan dialect within the Japanese context.
3. U.S. still holds 25 per cent of Okinawa’s land
History buffs would be familiar with the Battle of Okinawa. Near the end of World War II, the US Army and Marine Corps invaded Okinawa in order to fight Japan by cutting off their communications. US troops had remained in Okinawa since. Although Okinawa was returned to Japan in 1972, 25 per cent of the troops still remain there now.
4. Longevity myth in Okinawa
There have been many researches and debates about Okinawa having the highest life expectancy because of its longevity leaves. But this myth remains to be unravelled.
Places of interests
5. Gangala Valley
Located just 30 minutes away from the Naha Airport is a lush forest valley that tells the tale of the roots of Okinawans. The forest that spread over limestone caves used to be home to “Minatogawa Man” some 20,000 years ago. Here, you can also witness one of the oldest coffins of 3000 years old. If you are feeling adventurous, don’t miss this journey of mystery.
What’s more when you can admire the beauty of nature at the “Café Cave” at the entrance?
6. Gyokusendo Cave @ Okinawa World
Okinawa World presents the local history, cultural activities, and nature all in one location. The park’s main attraction is Gyokusendo Cave; a natural museum beautifully carved over 300,000 years. The cave is 5 kilometres long and prides itself on a host of spectacular rock formations.
It offers a 900-metre promenade to the public, showing some of its most magnificent natural formations – Blue Fountain, The Bell of the Rising Dragon, Ceiling of Spears, Squeezing Curtains, and the Silver Aurora.
If a guided tour in the cave lacks the sense of thrill, you can always join the daily tours in September through the off-limits paths, involving much scrambling around the cave.
7. Cape Manzamo
This translates directly to ‘a field for 10,000 people to sit’. It is undoubtedly one of the most popular destinations for both locals and tourists for its enchanting view. Located at the western side of Okinawa Island, Manzamo faces East China Sea, where the hues of turquoise will awe you and crashing of waves against the dramatic cliffs will serenade you. For the most post-card perfect picture, head there during sunset.
8. Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium
Okinawa’s aquatic beauty can be experienced at Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium. If you are not a fan of scuba diving, but has an immense curiosity for deep-sea creatures, this is the place you should be at.
The Aquarium features a few sections, spreading out an intriguing world of marine life before you. Some of the sections are The Kuroshio Sea Tanks with the world’s largest whale shark and the first bred-in-captivity manta rays, Coral sea with an array of thriving corals and flamboyantly coloured tropical fishes, and Deep Sea Attraction that recreates the mystery of the unusual species.
9. Katsuren Castle Ruins
This is the oldest castle in Okinawa and now is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Rested on a steep hill close to the coast, Katsuren Castle Ruins not only brings you for a round of history lesson but also offers picturesque sight over the landscape of Okinawa.
Visit in the day if you want to catch the sunrise and sunsets. In the night, the castle gains its romantic atmosphere, illuminating a different vibe from the day.
10. Shuri Castle
Shuri Castle is the centre stage of the Ryukyu Kingdom, telling tales of the prosperous kingdom. Shuri Castle was constructed around 14th century but what you will witness today are the realistic reconstructions, after it was reduced to ashes in the Battle of Okinawa.
Shuri Castle serves as the centre of Ryukyu Kingdom, hence much of the Japanese and Chinese cultural influences and historical values are reflected in its unique architectural.
This is a symbol of Okinawa, don’t miss it!
11. Former Navy Underground Headquarter
Near the end of World War II, Okinawa became one of the war’s bloodiest battles. There are a number of monuments and museums relating to the period throughout Okinawa and the former Navy Underground Headquarter is one of them left untouched.
Former Navy Underground Headquarters consists of several hundred metres of underground corridors and rooms where the soldiers once lived. Although it is open to and ventilated for the public, the walls retains much of the history – riddles with shrapnel from grenade and blood from the general after his suicide. A truly humbling experience for all history buffs.
12. Kokusai Street
You haven’t been to Okinawa if you did not make a trip to Kokusai Street. Though the main street runs for about 1.6 kilometres, this is the main entertainment strip in the heart of Okinawa. Kokusai Street has transformed itself from a local shopping street to a tourist attraction over the decades.
Kokusai Street is lined with restaurants, cafes, bars, hotels, and departmental stores, and you can find yourself getting awed by the highly raved Calbee Plus shops or 100-yen shops.
If you have more time, do venture into the smaller lanes and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the wide range of shops available.
13. Farmers’ market
To live like a local, drop by any farmers’ market. At the local farmers’ market, you will get the freshest produce and small snacks at a lower price.
14. American Village
With its massive landmark Ferris Wheel and cartooned architecture, American Village is one of the liveliest place to hang out and romantic spots at night. Mihama American Village is a large entertainment complex located in Chatan. With U.S military basees – Camp Lester, Camp Foster, Kadena Air Base – it is no mystery how this place came about.
This town has strong American culture, and blends perfectly with Okinawan. With the new addition of Depot Island, American Village is sure to please all – children and adults alike.
15. Nuchi Masu Salt factory
“We aimed at keeping it like it was in the ocean.” Nuchi Masu Salt Factory is located in Miyagi Island connected to the main island of Okinawa by Kaichu Road. The salt produced here are from the clear and clean seawater of the Pacific Ocean surrounding it.
Nuchi Masu salt is produced 100% seawater of Okinawa and has since won many awards such as Guinness World Records for its health benefits – 21 types of minerals and having the lowest salt content.
It is a must visit for all culinary and health enthusiasts.
16. Ashibina Outlet Mall
Located just 15 minutes away from Naha Airport, this is the place to be doing some last minute shopping! This shopping space holds more than 100 popular brands – local and international – such as Gucci, Coach, Tommy Hilfiger, BOSS, Armani, just to name a few.
With shops spanned out in the open air and palm trees dotting along the sidewalks, you can enjoy shopping in a relaxed environment with quality branded products at a reasonable price.
Food you must try
17. Beni Imo Products
Walk along any supermarkets or local food store, you will be overwhelmed by Beni Imo products. Beni-imo is as good as a staple in Okinawa. Purple sweet potato is an important crop in Okinawa, not for its value as a cash crop but as part of their local culture. Okinawa prides itself as ‘hometown for Beni-imo’ and it actually debunks the longevity leaves diet.
18. Sanpin Cha
More commonly known to us as Jasmine tea. As previously mentioned, Okinawa was not part of Japan until Edo period, explaining a different cuisine that differs from Japan’s. Its food culture was greatly influenced by China and Southeast Asia, and the United States in the later years. This tea is widely popular across Okinawa and first originated from China. The one in Okinawa, however, has a lighter scent to it. Quoting from our tour guide, “we don’t actually drink Green Tea!” Now you know what to pick after your meal.
Awamori is a distilled spirit unique to Okinawa with an alcohol content of 30 to 40 per cent. It uses black koji mold indigenous to Okinawa.
Features a very strong aroma and uniquely spicy taste that would appeal to any spice-lover. It is one of the most common seasoning used in Okinawa, usually sprinkled (or poured on generously) on simmered food and soba. It’s made from Awamori with lots of red-hot chilli peppers. It adds a tingling sensation to your dishes.
Seaweed? Grapes? Yes, you’re right. It’s sea grapes! This is a type of seaweed that resembles mini grapes. Each little ‘grape’ holds salty liquid that burst in your mouth when bitten. It’s usually eaten fresh or with a little soya sauce. Think: popping pearls.
22. Okinawa Soba
Okinawa Soba is not only popular among tourists but is a staple in Okinawa in the households. Okinawa Soba is a completely different dish from those found in Mainland Japan. They are made of wheat instead of flour, with thickness between the usual Ramen and Udon; and topped with tender slices of pork.
Rafute may resemble the braised pork in Chinese cuisine but it is actually a Okinawa dish. Succulent slabs of pork belly simmered in soy sauce and glazed with brown sugar will play with palette and leave coming back for more. It’s usually eaten as a dish alone or topped in Okinawa Soba.
Also known as Okinawan brown sugar, Kokuto differs from the other brown sugar as it is made from sugarcane grown in fields with minerals from the ocean in the south; containing high content of iron and calcium. Kokuto has a richer flavour and is often consumed as a sweet accompaniment with tea.
Okinawan salt contains seawater minerals with a hint of sweetness that lingers in your mouth. There are a variety of salt produced in Okinawa, most employing traditional salt making methods, such as powder salt and grained salt.
Goya came to Okinawa from Southeast Asia during its earlier trading days and became one of the most favoured vegetables for its health benefits. You may recognise Goya as bitter gourd here, and there are a few ways to prepare it in Okinawa – thinly sliced in salad or in Champuru.
27. Sata Andagi
Be it winter or summer, everyone loves a good donut. Sata Andagi are simple confections but simply one of the most famous sweet treats in Okinawa. Sata Andagi are deep-fried sugared buns made from dough. Not only are they satisfying filling, they are crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. You’ll see yourself going back for more.
As it becomes more popular amongst the international crowd, more flavours are added into the Sata Andagi, but the original remains as the crowd’s favourite.
Also, if you’re looking for hotels in Okinawa, these are the lowest prices for our Top 3 best value for money hotels in Okinawa!:
- #1 Hotel JAL City Naha (Most Popular)
- #2 Daiwa Roynet Hotel Naha Omoromachi
- #3 Daiwa Roynet Hotel Okinawa Kenchomae
The Writer’s trip was sponsored by the Okinawa Convention and Visitors’s Bureau and the Okinawa Tourist Service