- Okinawa Island (Okinawa-hontō) — the largest island in both size and population, featuring administrative capital Naha
- Kerama Islands — a cluster of tiny islands between Kume and Okinawa
- Akajima — popular holiday spot in the Kerama Islands
- Daito Islands — small inhabited islands several hundred kilometers to the east
- Miyako Islands — tourists are usually most interested in the natural monuments found here
- Yaeyama Islands — closer to Taiwan than the mainland Okinawa
- 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
The name Okinawa means "rope in the open sea", a fairly apt description of this long stretch of islands between mainland Japan and Taiwan. Consisting of 41 inhabited islands and 16 uninhabited islands, Okinawa has the only sub-tropical climate in Japan and as such is a major tourist destination for the Japanese, but not many foreign visitors make it to these shores.
Once the independent kingdom of Ryūkyū (琉球), 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 continued 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, and the Japanese proceeded to impose punitive taxes and did their best to suppress indigenous culture, language and religion. Worse was to come during World War II, when heavy bombardment and suicidal Japanese tactics, including the use of civilians as human shields, decimated the islands. Post-war they remained under U.S. occupation until 1972, and the presence of several large American military bases on Okinawa Island remains a sore point between the local government and the Japanese national government.
With their own language and customs, Okinawans still 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 uminchu (海人) 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 hondō (本土) in standard Japanese, yamato (ヤマト) in the local dialect, and sometimes as the slightly derisive local slang naichi (内地).
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 folk music is quite distinctive, and the twangy sound of the three-stringed Okinawan sanshin and pentatonic melodies are instantly recognizable. 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.
Okinawa is subtropical and even in winter temperatures rarely drop below 15°C in the daytime, making the area a popular winter getaway, although it's often cloudy and usually a little too cold for sunbathing. Spring, around March and April, is an excellent time to visit if you take care to avoid Golden Week at end of April. The rainy season starts early in May and continues until June. Summer in Okinawa is hot and humid but still one of the peak visiting seasons, while September-October brings a succession of fierce typhoons. November and December are again good times to visit.
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 ucināguci, 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, 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 not a few understand English as well, particularly on the main island which has several large US military bases.
Most visitors arrive in Naha, the capital of Okinawa. 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 may allow considerable savings.
Ferry services to Okinawa have been cut drastically in the last few years, 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 November 2008, 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.
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 high.
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 Churashima Kippu, which gets you five JTA/RAC flights of your choice for ¥35,000.
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.
Most people come to Okinawa for the sun and beaches. Even in midwinter, when mainland Japan teeters 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.
Okinawa is the best place in Japan for all sorts of watersports.
Scuba diving is very popular in Okinawa, but very expensive compared to, say, South-East Asia — you'll usually be looking at around ¥12,000 for a day's diving off a boat plus an additional ¥5,000+ if you need gear rental. For a 3-day certification course you'll need to fork out a cool ¥70,000 or so. To top it off many shops don't accept credit cards, so you'll 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 Reef Encounters in Chatan on Okinawa Island and Umicōza on Ishigaki are welcome exceptions.
If all this doesn't put you off, there is some world-class diving to look forward to: particular highlights include 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. Most Japanese divers wear a 5mm full-body wetsuit, and dive shops usually provide aluminum tanks with American-style fittings.
It should also be noted that a lot of the diving on Okinawa can be done from the shore (i.e. boats are not required). In that case, you can get full gear rental and tanks for around ¥5,000, or if you just need tanks then it will only be around ¥700 per tank.
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 and bears notable Taiwanese influences. 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 and trotters 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). 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 a stir-fried dish made from goya mixed with pork and tofu.
- 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.
- Raftī (ラフティー) is a side dish consisting of very fatty cubes of stewed pork.
- Sātāandagī (サーターアンダギー) are deep-fried balls of dough also aptly known as Okinawan donuts.
- Taco rice (タコライス) is a hybrid originating from the American presence in Okinawa — spiced Mexican-style taco meat with cheese, lettuce and tomatoes, but instead of being in a tortilla, it's on rice.
Aficionados of American fast food may find Okinawa to be a curious treat. Most prominent is the presence of A&W outlets serving hamburgers and root beer (with free refills, even), available practically nowhere else in Japan. Foremost ice cream (under the "Blue Seal" brand) is also common.
The local brew of choice is awamori (泡盛), a notoriously strong rice liquor that can contain up to 60% alcohol. 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 mainland.
Okinawa's beer label Orion is a safer alternative, at least in small quantities.
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.
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. Okinawa has many live houses in Naha city and Okinawa city. You can hear not only new music but also traditional Okinawan music using the Sanshin (the Okinawan traditional instrument). The charge depends on the artist but it’s usually about $10 (￥1.000) to $30 (￥3.500), 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 ¥2000, although you'll usually be looking at a minimum of ¥3000 for your own room and around ¥5000 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 ¥1000 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(&mat) for ¥500-1000/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 (2-3000 yen) 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.
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. Jellyfish (クラゲ kurage) and a variety of marine creatures that sting if stepped on present a risk. Also, habu, a snake with very deadly venom should also be watched out for throughout the year. Check out the posters (in Japanese, and sometimes in English) on the beaches explaining the dangerous marine animals.
This page was last edited at 06:40, on 23 March 2009 by Jani Patokallio. Based on work by D. Guillaume and Ryan Holliday, Wikitravel user(s) Shaund, Tannedbear and Episteme, Anonymous user(s) of Wikitravel and others.