OKINAWA (reached by plane or a 25 hour ferry ride from Kagoshima) is known for its warm climate, coral reefs and emerald water. Japan's 47th and poorest prefecture, Okinawa is an odd mix of American military bases, Japanese resort hotels, local island culture, pineapple plantations, and towns with pachinko parlors and girlie bars. Nineteen percent of Okinawa is occupied by U.S. forces.


Okinawa refers to the main island of Okinawa, the islands around the main island and a prefecture that embraces islands that stretch all the way to Taiwan. The islands’ attractions include scuba diving, pleasant beaches, clear water, mangrove forest, local awamori rice wine, pottery makers, and pleasant guesthouses. Okinawa is still regarded as a major center of traditional crafts. Among the crafts that are made here are weaving lacquerware, dyed garments, ceramics, and stonework.

Thirteen animals found in the Okinawa islands are found no where else in the world. They include the rare Iriomote cat, of which only a handful are thought to survive, on an island near Taiwan. There are also habu poisonous snakes. More than 80 percent of the island of Iriomote and several entire islands have been designated national parks. About 500 humpback breed in waters off the Bonin Islands and Okinawa. Whale watching tours are becoming a big business.

About 1.3 million people live on the main island of Okinawa, which they affectionately call “The Rock.” The majority of 5 million or so visitors that come annually to the island are Japanese, although more and more Taiwanese, Koreans, Chinese and other Asians are starting to come. Accommodation, food and taxis are considerably cheaper than on the main island than on the other islands.

Websites: Okinawa Travel Information Okinawa Travel Information ; ; Okinawa Prefecture Okinawa Prefecture ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Map: Okinawa Prefecture ; Utamaduni Utamaduni ; Getting There: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

areas occupied by
U.S. military bases
Geography and Weather of Okinawa: Okinawa includes the 454-square-mile main island of Okinawa and 160 smaller islands, including Ie, Iheya, Izena, Kerama, Kudaka and Kume Islands. A total of 117 of these islands are uninhabited.

The Okinawa chain of islands stretches for 700 miles between Taiwan and the Japanese island of Kyushu and are scattered over an expanse of sea that measures 250 miles from north to south and 600 miles from east to west.

The highest point on the rugged jungle-covered interior of the main island is 1,600 feet high. The islands lie right in the heart of the typhoon belt and are frequency hit by fierce storms. The spring and fall are the best times to visit. Winter are mild but the sea is little too chilly for swimming. The temperatures and humidity are high from June to November.

Nakagusuku Castle
History of Okinawa: In the early 1400s, the warring chieftains on the islands between Japan and China were unified under a single king that established the Ryukyu Kingdom, a seafaring state that traded silk, spices, cloth, swords and horses with China, Korea, Sumatra, Malacca, Siam and Japan. Ryuku culture was influenced by Southeast Asia and particularly by China, which extended cultural and economic hegemony over the islands and legitimized the rule of the Ryukyu kings. Confucianism, Buddhism and Chinese art intermingled with the island indigenous animist beliefs and folk art.

In 1609, a feudal clan from the southern Japanese island of Kyushu invaded Okinawa and defeated the Ryukyu kingdom. The islands then endured for 270 years as vassal state of Japan, whose subjects were not allowed to speak Japanese or wear Japanese clothes and were sometimes displayed in court ceremonies as if they were wild animals. In 1879, Okinawa was annexed by Japan and made into a Japanese Prefecture and Okinawans were assimilated into Emperor-worshiping Japanese culture.

The site of on one of the most important and bloodiest battles in World War II, Okinawa was controlled by the U.S. after the war. Some of the islands were given back to Japan in 1968, and the rest were returned in 1978. At one time the U.S. maintained 88 bases and 44,000 troops on Okinawa. The bases were used as supply and staging areas in the Korean and Vietnam wars. Today there are about 30,000 troops on Okinawa. They are aren't well liked by the Okinawans but the Okinawan economy depends on them.


Machigawa fish market
Naha (southwestern side of Okinawa Island) is the main city on Okinawa. Home to about 300,000 people, it was flattened in World War II . There are few remains of the of the old Ryukyu kingdom. Many hotels, bars, restaurants and shops are located off the mile-long Kokusai-dori (International Blvd.) The Tsuji entertainment area is former a brothel district known for its steak houses and love hotels.

Tourist Information: Okinawa Convention and Visitor's Bureau (Website: www.ocvb, . There are tourist offices at the airport (☎ 098-857-6884) and the Kumoji building on the southwest end of Kokusai-dori.

Websites: Naha City site Naha Living Guide ; Okinawa Travel Information Okinawa Travel Information Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO Okinawa Tourist Information mahae plus Subway Map: Urban Rail Hotel Websites: Okinawa Tourist Information mahae plus Click back to Okinawa for hotels elsewhere in Okinawa Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Naha is accessible by air from Tokyo and Osaka and other Japanese cities. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Sights in Naha: Attractions include Naminoue Shrine and Garden, located on a coral cliff and dedicated to the three ancestral gods of the Imperial Family; Sogenji Temple, containing the mausoleums of the Okinawan kings that ruled the islands more than 450 years ago; the Okinawan Prefectural Museum, with exhibits about Okinawan culture and life; Shuro Tropical Garden, with 400 types of plants; and the Japan Folkcraft Museum, There are also temples and shrines.

Naha is the jumping off point for sightseeing tours of the Ryukyu Islands. On the main island, monorail service was launched in 2003. The two-car train glides 14 meters above the ground and runs for 13 kilometers. Otherwise there are no trains on Okinawa. Visitors can also get around on bicycle-like, four-wheel, pedal-driven taxis.

Shuri Castle (outside Naha) was the seat of the Ryukyu kingdom and originally was constructed in the 14th century. Built on the highest point in the Shuri Hills, it features a curved red tile roof buildings. The Sedien, or main hall, was the largest wooden structure in the Ryukyu kingdom. Destroyed during the battle of Okinawa in World War II it was rebuilt in 1992 with funds supplied by the Japanese government. Most of the tourist buses stay from around 9:00am to 11:00am and 3:00pm to 5:00pm.

Shuri-koen Park contains Chinese-influenced Shurei-no-mom (Gate of Courtesy), the 16th century Kankai-mon Gate, Benzaiten-do Temple, Enkaku-ji Temples and the Tamauson Tombs. The later is a royal mausoleum for the second Sho dynasty. More than 300 castle ruins can be seen throughout Okinawa.

Some Kingdom of Ryukyu sights have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These include Shuri Castle; Shikinaen Garden (1½ kilometers from Shuri Castle), used by the royal family and restored after World War II with 20 years of work; Sonohyan-utaki stone gate; Sefa-utaki, an altar by a natural rock opening that was bathed in holy water collected from two stalactites associated with an Okinawan God and Tamaudu. Websites: Wonder Okinawa Wonder Okinawa ;Shurijo Park Shurijo Park

World War II-Related Sights on Okinawa

cave entrance
The focal points of the fighting on Okinawa were the caves, where civilians, Japanese soldiers and American troops all hid. The caves used by Japanese navy officers contain rooms connected by shafts and tunnels. In some rooms you can see pitting left behind by hand grenades used by Japanese officers to kill themselves. Before visiting the caves ask for permission and remember to bring a flashlight. Some of the caves are home to venomous habu snakes and 5-inch-long scorpion-like creatures.

Underground Naval Headquarters (3 miles south of Naha) is where 4,000 Japanese committed suicide. Only 200 meters of the 1.5 kilometers of tunnels are open. You can see the pits left in walls from grenades that killed many of the men.

Peace Memorial (southern Okinawa) was opened on June 23, 1995 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa. Set inside an expanse of green lawn, it consists of shoulder-high black granite slabs with the names of all 234,183 people who died in World War II fighting: 14,006 American troops, 82 other Allied personnel, 75,219 Japanese troops and 148,289 Okinawans (most of them citizens).

There are names written in English, Japanese and Korean. A search on computer will tell you where a specific name is located. A tomb with 180,000 World War II dead is the world's largest mass tomb.

Okinawan Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum (in Peace Memorial) was originally established in 1975 and reopened in 1999 in a new building. It has displays focusing on various aspects of the Battle of Okinawa. The museum contains exhibits and artifacts such as weapons and bullet riddled clothes and tear-wrenching testimonials by survivors of the battle. Website: Okinawan Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum Okinawan Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum

Mabuni-no-Oka (15 minute walk from the museum) is a seaside cliff where the last Japanese defenders made their final stand and were literally pushed into sea. In caves there is memorial for Japanese commander Gen. Mitsuru Ushijim who killed himself by plunging a sword into his abdomen. In the Itoman area there are cliffs where many Okinawans jumped to their death.

Underground Naval Headquarters
Himeyuri Peace Museum (near Itoman) memorialized 203 teenage nurse's aids who were killed during World War II. Many killed themselves after being lead to believe they would be raped and tortured by American troops. The memorial contain pictures of those who died.

Chibichiri Gama (southern Okinawa) is a 100-foot-deep limestone cave, where 87 people died included 47 children on April 2, 1945, after American soldiers approaching the cave and shot and killed two boys who charged them with bamboo spears. American soldiers pleaded with the civilians to come out and dropped leaflets in Japanese that said they wouldn't be harmed. The people didn't believe them. Japanese propaganda had led these people to believe that suicide was better than capture and torture by American “devils.”

The slaughter begin when an 18-year-old girl shouted, "Mommy, kill me! Don't let them rape me" and her mother obliged, triggering a mass killing in which parents slaughtered their children with knives, sickles, flaming oil from the oil lamps and then killed themselves.

The cave was opened to the public in the mid-1990s. There is a stairway that leads to passages where the 140 civilians hid. Most of the remains of the dead were taken away by relatives, but a few bones were left behind as a reminder of the tragedy. There are large bones near the mouth of the cave. The interior---which is said to contain the small bones of children--- is closed off to let their spirits rest in peace.

Sights Around Okinawa Island

crowded Moon Beach
Gyokusendo (southern Okinawa) is the largest stalactite cavern in Japan. It is three miles long and very touristy. Nearby is a craft exhibit and a habu snake house. The latter used to host mongoose and cobra fights but these have been banned since 1999. Visitors are allowed to pet large pythons.

Other Sights in Southern Okinawa include Himeyuri Park, a huge cactus garden which contains over 450 species of cactus; the Okinawa Coral Museum; Tomori-no-Ojishi, a large stone monument that dates back to 1689; and the Marine Leisure Center, offering glass bottom boat trips

Sights in Central Okinawa include Joseki-koen Park, which contains the ruins of castle used by the Okinawan royal family; Nakagusuku Castle, a ruin beautifully situated on steep slopes and jagged cliffs above the sea; Nakamura House, a well-preserved tradition Okinawan house.

Okinawa City (near Kadena Air Force base) is geared for the U.S, military community. It contains a large number of pizza places and burger joints and bookstores with English books and American magazines. Attractions in this area include a folkcraft museum, pottery factory, and Okinawa Children's Land. Nearby are the ruins of two castles, Ryukyu Village (a tourist trap with snake shows) and Okinawa Submarine Park

American Village (Chatan, near Kadena Air Force base) is strip of bars and nightclubs popular with American servicemen who to get loud, drunk and stupid. In Nago there is a replica of Bill Clinton’s boyhood home.

quiet beach on the Zamami Islands
Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium (in Motobucho) contains the largest fish tank in Japan. It is 35 meters long, holds 7,500 tons of water and has an acrylic viewing panel that is 22.5 meters wide, 8.2 meters high and 60 centimeters thick. According to the Guinness Book of World’s Records the panel is the largest aquarium window in the world. Inside the tank are three whale sharks, three manta rays, 16,000 fish, 50 kinds of living coral and scores of different kinds of fish and sea creatures. The aquarium attracted more than 2.75 million visitors the year after it opened in November 2002. One of the main displays recreates a tropical ocean. Website: Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium Kaiyouhaku

Ocean Park Expo (northwest Okinawa, near Motobu-cho) is a 250-acre site (partly in the sea) with an excellent aquarium with sharks and lots fish, two dolphin shows, gardens, a beach and innovative playground. Located on Motubu Peninsula, the park is the remains of 1975 International Ocean Exhibition, the first Ocean Exposition in the world. Website: Japan Guide Japan-Guide ;

Other Sights in Northern Okinawa include the Yambaru Wildlife Park, Izumi Pineapple Garden and Cape Hedo-misaki. There are nice beaches at Sesoko-jima Island, Minna-jima Island and Okuma beach. The northern part of the main island of Okinawa is relatively unspoiled. The village of Kijoa is known for its traditional houses.

Islands, Diving, Whales Around Okinawa

Windsurfing, parasailing and other marine sports are enjoyed in Okinawa. Jungle and canoe trips are run by local eco-tourism groups.

Diving Around Okinawa: Okinawa contain some of the world’s northernmost tropical coral reefs and a great variety of coral. Thus far 370 different species of coral and 1,000 species of reef fish have been counted. Coral bleaching has become a problem in some places.

On the Main Island some visitors take glass bottom bota trips and walk on the bottom of the ocean in weighted boots with headgear connected to an oxygen hose.

Some of the best diving in Okinawa is off Okashima Island in Zamamison, To prevent damage there the local government restricts the number of diving permits given out. Some of the best snorkeling and diving os on the nearby small islands of Iheya-jima, Izena-jima. Kume-jima and the Keram-retto Islands.

The best coral reefs are off Ishigakjima and Iriomotejima. Three-kilometer-long Shiraho reef off Ishigaki Island contains at least two thirds of the number of species found in Australia's Great Barrier Reef and some world's largest, oldest and finest colonies of blue coral.

To boost tourism to the islands the government wants to build an airport on the island with a runway large enough to accommodate jumbo jets. The only problem is they want to build the runway into a bay blessed with large colonies of coral. Websites: Diving Okinawa Diving Okinawa ; Dive Bum Okinawa Dive Bum Oki ; Dive Sites Marine Corps Okinawa ; Dive Sites Reef Encounters

Group (35 kilometers from Naha) is group of 30 or so islands is popular with divers for its clear waters (visibility up to 30 feet). There are 13 divide shops on Tokashiki Island,

Whale Watching Tours are organized by several groups in Naha and Zamami, including the Zamami Whale Watching Association, which uses relatively small boats and dispenses with the unnecessary land tours of the island. A two-hour tour costs about ¥5,000 person and leaves from Zamamai on the Keram islands, which is reached by a one-hour high-speed ferry that leaves from Tomari Port in Naha at 9:00am and cost about ¥5,000 for a round-trip ticket.

Every year between January and April, hundreds of humpback whales migrate through the area. The humpbacks have only been seen in the area since the mid 1990s but about 270 of them have been counted in the peak season.

The trips involve going to a spot where whales are usually seen and waiting. When a whale is spotted the boat races off for a closer look, but always maintains a distance of greater 100 meters. The whales rarely dive for more than 15 minutes so when one dive the guides does his best to predict where it will show up next. Website: whale watching in Okinawa Kerama Islands whale watching

Tokashiki Island (reached by ferry from Naha) is the largest island in the Aja group. Humpback whales breed off the coast here from January to April, after migrating from Alaska. Whale watching tours are offered about $75 a head. In the old days humpbacks were common here and then disappeared as a result of whaling. In the 1990s they returned and their numbers have been steadily increasing since then. A few years rules were passed that limited the number of whale watching boats so the whales wouldn't be harassed.

Yoronto Island (23 kilometers from Okinawa) is small island know for its sea turtles, traditional sweets, salt industry and thatch-roof folk village. The island is very remote and quiet. The people that lived here were known for being self sufficient and producing all their own things until the 1960s. The best turtle spotting place is a five minute boat ride from Chaban Port. It is not uncommon to a dozen different turtle in one dive. The turtles like t to come to this spot to sleep.

Image Sources: Okinawa Convention and Vistors Bureau except military map (Wikipedia), caves (Camp Schwab site) and whale watching (Okinawa Tourist Info)

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated March 2013

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