13 Jun 24

13 reasons to visit Japan’s island paradise of Okinawa

Sam McCrow Japan

Australians love Japan! The country’s proximity, safety, high-speed rail network, pilgrimage trails, delicious food, fascinating culture, cherry blossoms and friendliness have put it high on travel bucket lists. If you’ve ever aspired to visit Japan or want to return, we highly recommend a visit to the enchanting archipelago of Okinawa, the southernmost part of Japan, only a 3-hour flight from Tokyo. 

With comparisons to Hawaii, you’d be forgiven for picturing big resorts and bright lights but we’re here to set the record straight. Okinawa offers an unparalleled 5-star nature, culture, walking and foodie experience. It’s the perfect destination for travellers seeking relaxation, wellness and adventure, and we’ve created an intimate and unique experience that will blow your hiking socks off!

Here are 13 wonderful reasons to visit Okinawa – Japan’s tropical adventure paradise.

1. Pristine natural beauty

Okinawa is a name that evokes images of lush green landscapes, translucent azure waters and pristine beaches. The interior is characterised by dense subtropical forests and mangrove-lined rivers, rich in biodiversity. Scenic and well-maintained hiking trails allow you to immerse yourself in the tranquility. The ancient Yanbaru National Park in the north is a beautiful area surrounded by coral reefs and calm seas. It’s one of the world’s five Blue Zones of longevity and where we stay in stunning private eco villas (see full itinerary). The large swathe of land features mountains, forests, rivers and beaches and is bordered by the villages Kunigami, Higashi and Ogimi. Ancient trees, rare creatures and cascading waterfalls add to the natural allure. Hiji Falls is a standout – the water tumbles majestically from a height of 26m to the pool below. Note that on Okinawa, the cherry blossoms (darker in colour than the mainland flowers) unfurl their petals mid-January – several months ahead of Tokyo and Kyoto.

A lush rainforest scene with a winding river cutting through the dense foliage,

2. Adventurous eating

Okinawan food is tasty and known for its health benefits. Okinawa is one of the world’s five fabled Blue Zones. Many Okinawans live to 100 years of age and one key factor is nutrition (along with martial arts, climate, community and spirituality). The island’s cuisine is a delightful fusion of Japanese, Chinese, and Southeast Asian flavours, packed with nutrients and unique flavours you won’t find anywhere else. The food here is a testament to the island’s rich cultural heritage and natural abundance. The isolation of the region has resulted in unique flavours and cooking techniques that are distinct from mainland Japanese cuisine. Historically, the use of local ingredients like seafood, pork, and tropical fruits and vegetables reflects the natural bounty of the island.

Notable examples include goya champuru, a stir-fried bitter melon dish paired with tofu and pork; rafute, a succulent braised pork belly; and Okinawa soba, a hearty noodle soup that warms the soul. Don’t miss trying umi budo (sea grapes), a type of seaweed that pops in your mouth with a burst of salty flavour; mozoku, a stringy and crunchy seaweed rich in fucoidan which is unique to Okinawa; or sata andagi, Okinawan-style doughnuts that are crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside.

Bowls of tantalising fresh Japanese cuisine

3. Layered history

Originally known as the Ryukyu Kingdom, Okinawa was an independent kingdom from the 15th to the 19th century, flourishing as a vibrant centre of trade in East Asia. Chinese influence is evident in Okinawa’s traditional arts, architecture, and religious practices. The Ryukyuans adopted the Chinese writing system and Confucian principles, which shaped their governance and societal structures. In 1879, Japan annexed the Ryukyu Kingdom, incorporating it into its territory as Okinawa Prefecture. This shift brought Japanese language, customs, and Shinto practices to the islands. The 20th century saw another significant influence: the United States. Following World War II, Okinawa was under U.S. administration until 1972. American presence introduced new cultural elements, including cuisine, music, and even language, which have left a lasting imprint on the region. Today, Ryukyuan traditions harmoniously coexist with Chinese, Japanese, and American influences, making it a captivating place to visit.Exterior of a building with a memorial shrine

4. Shurijo Castle

Visiting Shurijo Castle is like stepping back in time to an era when the Ryukyu Kingdom was at its zenith. This UNESCO World Heritage site was the political and cultural heart of the Ryukyu Kingdom for over 400 years. Although much of the castle was destroyed during WWII, it has been meticulously reconstructed. Through meticulously curated exhibits, traditional performances, and interactive displays, you can gain insight into the kingdom’s diplomatic relations, trade practices, and daily life. The vibrant red structure and the ornate Shureimon gate provide a striking contrast to the lush green surroundings, making it a must-visit for anyone interested in Okinawa’s royal heritage. The serene gardens, ancient stone walls, and panoramic views of Naha city add to the castle’s allure, offering a peaceful retreat and an educational experience wrapped in one magnificent site.

Vibrant red Japanese temple gate

5. Enigmatic Shisa 

When wandering through the charming streets of Okinawa, you’ll likely encounter a unique and captivating sight – Shisa, the guardian lion-dogs. These mystical creatures, often found perched on rooftops, guarding gates, or flanking doorways, are fascinating to look at and also steeped in rich cultural significance. Shisa, resembling a cross between a lion and a dog, are traditional Ryukyuan decorations derived from Chinese guardian lions. They have been a part of Okinawan culture for centuries, playing a crucial role in local folklore and daily life. Typically, they come in pairs – one with an open mouth and one with a closed mouth. The open-mouthed Shisa is said to ward off evil spirits, while the closed-mouthed one keeps good spirits in. You’ll see Shisa almost everywhere in Okinawa, from the bustling markets of Naha to the serene villages in the countryside. They adorn rooftops, stand guard at temples, and even feature in business logos and street art. The sheer variety of Shisa – ranging from traditional stone sculptures to colourful ceramic figures – adds to their charm.

Terracotta guardian lion on top of a rooftop in Japan

6. Traditional Okinawan pottery

Okinawa is renowned for its traditional pottery, known as “yachimun.” This art form has deep roots dating back to the Ryukyu Kingdom, where it served both practical and ceremonial purposes. Today, yachimun continues to thrive, capturing the spirit and essence of Okinawan culture through its intricate designs and vibrant colours. The designs of yachimun are aesthetically pleasing and also historically significant. Each piece often features traditional motifs and symbols, such as shisa (guardian lion-dogs) and elements of nature, all painted in rich, earthy colours. These motifs tell stories of Okinawa’s past and present, making each piece a unique keepsake. A visit to Okinawa would not be incomplete without exploring the local pottery villages, especially Tsuboya – it’s the heart of Okinawan pottery, where you can witness skilled artisans at work.

  • You’ll visit Tsuboya on day 4 of our itinerary.

Close up of man wearing a hat putting a finishing image on a cup made from pottery

7. Naha Tug of War Festival

The islands of Okinawa are abuzz with incredible events throughout the year. There’s something in every season. Festivals abound, offering great ways to connect with the unique island culture. The Naha Tug of War Festival (or Naha Otsunahiki) dates back to the 17th century and will leave you spellbound! This vivid spectacle takes place annually, usually in early October, in the heart of Okinawa’s capital, Naha. It’s not just any festival; it’s a celebration deeply entrenched in history and culture. The massive rope, adorned with banners and talismans stretches over 200m and weighs nearly 40 tonnes, is placed along the bustling Kokusai Street and thousands gather to pull this gigantic rope in a battle of might and teamwork. Beyond the main event, the festival offers a plethora of cultural experiences. Street stalls line the area, offering traditional Okinawan delicacies. Local artisans display their crafts, and entertainers perform traditional eisa dance and taiko drumming.

Image of a lively parade with a massive group of participants pulling a giant rope, symbolising teamwork and camaraderie.

8. Rare and endemic wildlife

The diverse ecosystems of Okinawa support a variety of unique wildlife species, some of which are endemic to the islands. The Yanbaru National Park is a crucial habitat for the endangered Okinawa rail and the Yanbaru kuina, both of which are rare birds found only in this region. Okinawa’s warm waters support some of the northernmost coral reefs in the world, home to a rainbow of fish, sea turtles, and other marine creatures. Whale sharks can often be spotted in the waters around Okinawa, while Okinawa’s beaches are important nesting sites for green and hawksbill sea turtles. Established to safeguard the rich biodiversity of the Yambaru forest, the Yambaru National Park is a haven for many endemic species.

  • On day 2 of our itinerary, a specialist local guide will lead you through the forest sharing her incredible knowledge of the interesting creatures you can find.

Underwater photograph of a majestic turtle swimming gracefully

9. Sunsets and stargazing

Okinawa’s unique atmospheric conditions contribute significantly to its stunning sunsets. The islands are situated in a subtropical climate, where the air is often clear and free from pollutants. This clarity allows the colours of the sunset to appear more vivid and striking. The surrounding ocean also plays a crucial role. The vast expanse of water reflects the sunlight, amplifying the colours and making the sunsets seem even more radiant. The combination of clear skies and reflective waters sets the stage for some of the most beautiful sunsets you’ll ever see. Okinawa is also an excellent location for stargazing. Many of the islands are remote and have strict regulations to limit artificial lighting. This ensures that the night sky remains dark and clear, providing optimal conditions for stargazing. Many residents and businesses support initiatives to reduce light pollution and promote stargazing as a cultural activity.

  • A local will take us on a stargazing walk sharing folklore stories and songs while gazing at the stars and constellations on the evening of day 2 of our itinerary.

Stars illuminated in the night sky above mountains.

10. Traditional Ryukyu music

Ryukyu music often evokes images of serene landscapes and tranquil moments. You can immerse yourself in the island’s musical heritage by attending performances of traditional Ryukyu music. At the heart of Ryukyu music is the sanshin, a traditional three-stringed instrument that resembles a banjo. Made from snake skin and wood, the sanshin produces a distinctive, resonant sound integral to Okinawan music. Its melodies are often described as soulful and haunting, capturing the essence of Okinawa’s natural beauty and cultural heritage. The koto is another essential instrument, a type of zither with 13 strings. Played with picks worn on the fingers, the koto has a delicate and ethereal quality. Rhythm in Ryukyu music is driven by taiko drums, which range in size from small hand-held drums to large barrel drums. These drums energise the music, creating dynamic and powerful beats that are essential during traditional festivals and celebrations.

Close up of a man's hand playing a musical instrument that has 3 strings and a snakeskin-covered body; looks similar to a banjo

11. Karate

Okinawa is the birthplace of Karate, which translates to ’empty hand’. It is a unique part of the prefecture’s culture, with over 400 training facilities called dojos offering seminars and multi-day programs to practice Karate throughout the island and taught by a grandmaster. Karate originated in Okinawa in the early 20th century, blending indigenous fighting styles with influences from Chinese martial arts. This historical amalgamation has given rise to various styles, including Goju-Ryu, Shorin-Ryu, and Uechi-Ryu, each with its own unique philosophy and techniques. Okinawans are extremely proud of this part of their history.

Two men, one in a white shirt and red belt, performing karate moves.

12. Makishi Public Market

Nestled in the vibrant city of Naha, the atmospheric Makishi Public Market, often referred to as ‘Naha’s Kitchen’ is a bustling hub of activity and a beloved institution. This place sprang up in the aftermath of WWII and began as a black market where smuggled goods were traded. It provided a much-needed source of food and goods for the recovering community. Walking through the Makishi Public Market is an adventure for the senses and treasure trove of locally grown produce. The market is divided into two main sections. The ground floor is where vendors sell an impressive array of fresh seafood, meats, vegetables, and fruits. Many vendors will even prepare and cook your purchase on the spot, offering a truly fresh dining experience. The second floor is home to small eateries and souvenir shops where you can find traditional Ryukyu glassware, hand-dyed textiles, and other unique items. We’ll explore the market and have lunch here on day 4 of our itinerary.

Display of brightly coloured fresh fish for sale at a market

13. Naha

The vibrant capital city of Okinawa Prefecture exudes a unique blend of tradition and modernity. Steeped in rich Ryukyuan heritage, it’s where you’ll find historic landmarks like Shuri Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, embodying the island’s royal past. The lively Kokusai Street offers a bustling mix of shops, eateries, markets and street performances. For a deeper dive into local culture, visit the Okinawa Prefectural Museum & Art Museum, where you can explore exhibits on the island’s natural history, arts, and folklore. For a taste of local life, wander through the atmospheric alleys of Sakaemachi. The historic district is home to tiny alleyways full of retro charm and brimming with traditional Machiya houses, artisan workshops and cosy cafes.

A street in Okinawa, Japan, with palm trees and vintage style taxis

NEED TO KNOW
Best time to visit

Okinawa enjoys a subtropical climate, making it a year-round destination. March to late April and October to December are the best times to visit. We highly recommend planning your visit to coincide with one of the island’s annual festivals or events, such as the Naha Tug-of-War Festival in October.

Getting there

Regular flights from Australia and across Japan make getting to Okinawa easy. The main hub for flights to Okinawa is Naha Airport, on the main island, a 3-hour flight from Tokyo. It’s also a little over 2-hours from Osaka’s Kansai Airport and 2 hours from Hiroshima. Domestic and International flights also operate to airports on some remote islands such as Ishigaki and Miyako.

What we offer

You can experience the stunning nature and vibrant culture of this island on our 5-day premium Okinawa Island Explorer. Join an experienced local leader and small group of like-minded travellers for the trip of a lifetime! 

You’ll have a truly memorable experience spending quality time with locals who are keen to share their knowledge, skills and insights. Easy guided nature walks will give you the best opportunity to discover the world-class beauty and incredible biodiversity of the island. You’ll also explore a hidden sake cellar in an ancient limestone cave, learn about Okinawa’s wartime legacy, enjoy an evening of stargazing and storytelling, unwind in soothing onsen hot springs, take part in superb dining experiences, and more! 

The ancient forested Yanbaru region is one of the world’s five Blue Zones of longevity and where we will spend a couple of nights in stunning private eco villas.

A note about the cost

This trip is a one-of-a-kind experience. We’ve designed an immersive and authentic travel experience in a unique destination. It’s more expensive than our other Japan trips because of the accommodations and special inclusions. The itinerary is jam-packed with highlights (as well as allowing time for relaxation). With the group size limited to 6, you are guaranteed an intimate, meaningful experience and personal attention and service from our expert guides. 

What’s included?

  • 5-star accommodation in Naha
  • Private eco villas in the Yanbaru Forest
  • An experienced lead adventure guide (who speaks English, Japanese and French)
  • A driver and private vehicle
  • Specialist local guides for nature walks, cultural insights, conservation tours and stargazing, plus entry fees for those activities
  • Superb dining experiences, including a French-Japanese degustation evening
  • Delicious breakfasts and lunches
  • Airport transfers
Choose your own dates

If our scheduled departure dates don’t suit, no problem! You can choose your own dates for our guided tour (subject to availability). You’ll need a minimum of 4 people (max. 6). Send your request to japan@rawtravel.com and we’ll organise everything for you.

Samantha McCrow

Written By

Samantha McCrow

Sam is an seasoned hiker and travel writer with 20+ years experience as a content and marketing specialist. She started out as a commissioning editor for Lonely Planet guidebooks and now regularly shares stories and insights about the world's most iconic and rewarding hiking trails.

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