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.
Although it is part of Japan, Okinawa has a distinct history and identity. It was once an independent kingdom, with a language and culture of its own, and paid tribute to the Chinese emperors. Even today, it differs from mainland Japan as climate, diet, customs, and other aspects of life shade into those of Southeast Asia. Okinawa officially became a part of Japan in the 1870s, and many of the Japanese emigrants to Hawaii and South America at the turn of the century actually came from Okinawa.
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 population includes about 50,000 U.S. military personnel and their families. Another 200,000 Japanese people live on the outlying islands. Okinawa was the scene of the last major U.S.-Japanese battle in World War II, which killed about one-third of the Okinawan population. From 1945 to 1972, Okinawa was under U.S. administration. The war, occupation and presence of Japanese troops left the Okinawan people with both a link with the American military, largely out of economic necessity, and strong distaste for the military and it presence on their island. This distaste creates friction that rears its head whenever there is some sort of military-related accident or a change in policy of the American military in Okinawa.
Tourism in Okinawa : 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. Transportation in Okinawa: 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. Naha is also the jumping off point for sightseeing tours of the Ryukyu Islands. Wonderful islands just an hour away and accessible by ferry boats are great for snorkeling and diving. Naha Monorail Map: Urban Rail urbanrail.net ; Websites: Official Okinawa Tourism Site visitokinawa.jp ; Okinawa Tourism Bureau ocvb.or.jp/foreign/en ; JNTO japan.travel ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Beach Map: Okinawa Prefecture visitokinawa.jp
Getting There: Okinawa can reached by plane from many destinations in Japan and Asia or a 25 hour ferry ride from Kagoshima on southern Kyushu. Several of discount carriers that operate in Japan have relatively cheap flights to Okinawa. Naha Airport is about a three-hour flight from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. A new airport in Okinawa — New Ishigaki Airport — opened in 2012. The runway of new airport is two kilometers long and 45 meters wide, able to receive larger aircraft than those using the island’s existing airport, which has a 1.5 kilometer runway. The new airport is expected to be the most frequently used regional airport in Japan. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet
Geography and Weather of Okinawa
areas occupied by
U.S. military bases Okinawa is the largest of the Ryukyu Islands, a chain that extends from Kyushu to Taiwan. Okinawa Prefecture (which includes the southern part of the archipelago) derives its name from the main island. Naha, the prefectural capital, is also located on the main island. The island of Okinawa is 110 kilometers (70 miles long and average about 10 kilometers miles wide. Naha is 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) southwest of Tokyo, 550 kilometers (350 miles) northeast of Taipei, and 1,220 kilometers (750 miles) north of Manila.
Okinawa includes the 1,176-square-kilometer (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 about 1,100 kilometers (700 miles) between Taiwan and the Japanese island of Kyushu and are scattered over an expanse of sea that measures 400 kilometers (250 miles) from north to south and 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) from east to west. The highest point on the rugged jungle-covered interior of the main island of Okinawa is about 490 meters (1,600 feet) high. Okinawa's climate resembles that found in Florida or Sicily. Winters are comfortable but cool at night. Spring and fall are very nice. The islands lie right in the heart of the typhoon belt and are frequency hit by typhoons and fierce storms. As a result, most buildings are low and built of concrete. 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. Sometimes there are water shortages. Whenever annual rainfall is less than the normal 200 centimeters (80 inches). But this is unusual. There was a 21-day period of rationing in the winter of 1994. Okinawa has its share of semitropical insects and reptiles.
Okinawa Prefecture covers 2,281square kilometers (881 square miles), is home to about 1.43 million people and has a population density of 629 people per square kilometer. Naha is the capital and largest city, with about 360,000 people. It is the Ryukyu Islands and is politically considered part of Kyushu island and has five districts and 5, 41 municipalities. Tourism is the main industry. Because of the warm climate throughout the year, marine sports are popular. There are many beautiful islands in Okinawa, such as Ishigaki-jima and Miyakojima, known for their coral reefs
History of Okinawa
Nakagusuku Castle Okinawa, once called Ryukyu, was an independent kingdom until the seventeenth century and, as such, developed its own distinct dialect and cultural traditions. After World War II and until 1972, Okinawa was controlled by the U.S. military.
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.
United States Military on Okinawa
Nineteen percent of Okinawa is occupied by U.S. forces. Okinawa contains the largest contingent of Marines outside the United States, the largest U.S. Air Force base in Asia and a major port for the U.S. Seventh Fleet. About 50,000 Americans are stationed on Okinawa. They include 28,890 troops (2003), about two thirds of the American troops in Japan, of which 17,600 are Marines.
Known to American servicemen as "The Rock," Okinawa is the home of 30 separate facilities and American military installations, which cover about a fifth of the island. Japan pays most of the operating expenses for the bases. Among the largest facilities are Kadena Air Base, the largest air base in Asia, and home to 100 aircraft, including F-15 fighters, KC-135 airborne refueling tankers and F-22A Raptor stealth fighters; and Futenama Air Station, a Marine facility with 70 aircraft, mostly attack and transport helicopters.
Okinawa is valued by the American military because of its strategic location between Japan, Korea and Taiwan and the fact it is within easy striking distance of North Korea and China. One U.S. official told National Geographic, "North Korea is unstable and dangerous. China's military is growing; its future leadership — who knows? Peace in the region depends on American military presence. And there is no better place for that than Okinawa."
The military bases offer a full range of American-style conveniences, shopping, education, and leisure activities. Some neighborhoods just outside the larger bases resemble similar communities in the U.S., with shops, restaurants, car lots, and bars catering to service members. lthough many Americans make an effort to experience Okinawan culture, most focus the vast majority of their activities on base and within the American community. The U.S. Navy operates a hospital, and the Air Force a clinic, but the cost for civilians for nearly all forms of treatment is higher than at local hospitals.
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.
Restaurants include numerous steak houses, Mexican, Korean, Chinese, Indian, Thai, Italian, French, Argentine, pizza, fast food, and Japanese restaurants. Prices are lower than in Tokyo for comparable meals. Bars and discos abound. Okinawa has a very good home-grown music scene. Some of the best music in Japan comes from Okinawa. American musical groups sometimes visit Okinawa. Several large concert halls and cultural centers offer cultural events throughout the year.
Tourist Information: Okinawa Convention and Visitor's Bureau (Website: www.ocvb,or.jp/english) . There are tourist offices at the airport (Tel: 098-857-6884) and the Kumoji building on the southwest end of Kokusai-dori. Websites: Naha Navi City site naha-navi.or.jp/en ; Okinawa Travel Information visitokinawa.jp Maps: Naha City site naha-navi.or.jp ; Naha Monorail: Urban Rail Urbanrail.net 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
Unfortunately, all historical sites with the exception of ancient castle ruins were leveled in the 1945 battle. Shuri Castle, home of the most recent Okinawan monarch, has been rebuilt and is a major tourist attraction, as are other, older castle ruins. A large botanical garden and many well-maintained parks make Okinawa a family-friendly place.
Attractions in Naha 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 Museum has an expansive programming geared at preserving and researching its local history and culture. Artifacts embedded with unique Okinawan folklore and traditions are on display, while the art museum elicits active dialogues regarding Okinawa’s complicated modern history through exhibitions of contemporary works by local artists. Address: 3-1-1 Omoro-machi, Naha-shi, Okinawa 900-0006, Tel: +81-98-941-8200.
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.
Shuri Castle (just 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.
When King Sho Hashi (1372-1429) unified the three principalities of Okinawa and established the Ryukyu kingdom, he used the castle as a residence. Shuri was a center of political, economic and cultural affairs as as well as foreign trade. It was designated a national treasure of Japan in 1928. The castle consists of three courts, the front court where king coronation ceremonies were held, the south court where was used for official lookouts from the Satsuma clan, Japanese officials and for Japanese ceremonies. Beginning in 1992, it was reconstructed on the original site based on photographs and historical records.
According to UNESCO: “The main hall of Shuri-jô was restored not only on the basis of the surveyed plans and photographs of the actual architecture as it was seen before its destruction by the wartime fire, but also in strict accordance with the findings of the excavation covering a wide area. The exact replica of the lost structure is now a great monument symbolizing the pride of the Ryukyu people.”
Some Kingdom of Ryukyu sights have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site (See Below). 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: ;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.
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.
Underground Naval Headquarters 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.
Beaches, Sights and Activities Around Okinawa Island
Many of the Okinawan beaches consist of ground coral mixed with sand. Some may charge an admission fee. The military beaches are free. The northern half of Okinawa is sparsely populated and features a beautiful coastline of mountains and coral 'reefs. Windsurfing, parasailing and other marine sports are enjoyed in Okinawa. Jungle and canoe trips are run by local eco-tourism groups.
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.
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.
Motobu Peninsula and Northern Okinawa
crowded Moon Beach 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.
Ryoichi Matsumoto wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “The town of Motobu used to flourish thanks to its bonito fishing. As a reminder of that time, there are many restaurants that serve Okinawa soba using bonito soup stock. I happened to come across a monthly handicraft fair in a small marketplace operated by the town government, near one of the noodle shops where I ate. They sold such goods as vegetables, home-cooked dishes and breads, and pins made from seashells bearing carved motifs. There was also an improvised flower decoration class. “When I mentioned to Madoka Seta, who was selling handmade daily commodities, that I saw few tourists at the fair, she replied: “That’s the attraction. Items sold here aren’t meant to follow fashion. We all bring what we like and people who like them come and we chat together. I like to spend time relaxing that way.”[Source: Ryoichi Matsumoto Yomiuri Shimbun, January 4, 2015]
“In this region, which is some distance from Naha and other lively places in the southern part of the main island, I saw a huge showcase for tourists existing side by side with the daily life of local people. After the summertime bustle and the typhoon season are over, the beach on Sesokojima island in Motobu regains its calmness and time slows down again. On a fair day, it might be nice to sit on the beach and do nothing all day other than watch the gentle East China Sea. Visiting the tourism association in the neighboring Nakijin village, I saw a poster with the catchphrase “Nuun Nenshiga” in large letters. The phrase in the local dialect means, “We don’t have anything special, though.” That’s not true — the village has such attractive tourist spots as the ruins of Nakijin Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage site. However, association Director General En Matayoshi, 45, said he would rather promote the village as a place “with nothing special.”
“Recently, more and more people are attracted to [places in] Okinawa [Prefecture] that aren’t meant to be tourist destinations,” Matayoshi said. “Our village is warm even in winter. The inns are cheap and not very crowded. It’s good we have nothing special.” On my way back from Nakijin to Motobu, I saw a roadside stall selling citrus tankan, a type of tangerine grown in the prefecture. The fruit looked tough and difficult to eat, but to my surprise, it was sweet and had a strong aroma. “We don’t ship them to the mainland, so you should buy it here now,” said tangerine farmer Naohide Urasaki, 60. According to Urasaki, tankan is grown outdoors all year round, so freshly picked tankan is sold even in midwinter.
Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium at the Ocean Expo Park in Motobu.
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 churaumi.okinawa/en
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 ;
Ryoichi Matsumoto wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “The aquarium building facing the East China Sea rears up like a gigantic castle, and a stream of people enter as if drawn to it. “Our large fish tank is one of the biggest in the world. It contains a whale shark that holds the world record for the longest survival [at an aquarium or other facility],” said Asuka Kinjo, 30, who is in charge of publicity and planning at the aquarium. “It also contains a reef manta ray and many other fishes.” [Source: Ryoichi Matsumoto Yomiuri Shimbun, January 4, 2015]
“The aquarium opened in 2002 and has recently attracted more than 3 million people a year, according to Kinjo. I listened to her brisk explanations as we walked past the crowd at the aquarium. Various creatures from both shallow and deep parts of the ocean are kept in a total of 77 fish tanks at the aquarium, she said, amazing me again at the facility’s huge size. On weekdays, many students from across the nation visit our aquarium on their school excursions, even during off-seasons. If you want to see the fish in a tranquil atmosphere, I suggest you come in the early morning or the early evening on a weekend,” Kinjo said.
“The Ocean Expo Park encompassing the aquarium is part of the Okinawa Commemorative National Government Park and is located on a 71-hectare lot that was the site for the Okinawa International Ocean Exposition. That event started in 1975, three years after the reversion of Okinawa to Japan from the United States. To walk through the vast lot of the Ocean Expo Park takes more than an hour. The park also encompasses the Tropical Dream Center featuring rare botanical plants, the Oceanic Culture Museum and a man-made beach. The park showcases the charms of Okinawa Prefecture and is meant to attract tourists not only from other parts of Japan but also from China and South Korea. Travel Information The Ocean Expo Park is about a two-hour car drive from the airport. For more information, call the Ocean Expo Park’s management office at (0980) 48-2741, the Motobu Tourism Association at (0980) 47-3641, and the Nakijin Tourism Association at (0980) 56-1057.
Ryukyu Kingdom Sites: UNESCO World Heritage Site
Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000. According to UNESCO: “ Five hundred years of Ryukyuan history (12th-17th century) are represented by this group of sites and monuments. The ruins of the castles, on imposing elevated sites, are evidence for the social structure over much of that period, while the sacred sites provide mute testimony to the rare survival of an ancient form of religion into the modern age. The wide-ranging economic and cultural contacts of the Ryukyu Islands over that period gave rise to a unique culture. The nine component parts of the property include the sites and archaeological ruins of two stone monuments, five castles, and two cultural landscapes. They are scattered across Okinawa Island, collectively covering 54.9 ha. The surrounding buffer zone covers a total area of 559.7 hectares.
“In Ryukyu there remain more than three hundred Gusuku sites and related assets, of which five Gusuku sites, two related monuments, and two cultural landscapes are included as component parts of the property. In the 10th-12th centuries, Ryukyuan farming communities (gusuku) began to enclose their villages with simple stone walls for protection. From the 12th century onwards powerful groups known as aji began to emerge. They enlarged the defences of their own settlements, converting them into fortresses for their own households; these adopted the term gusuku to describe these formidable castles. The castle ruins of the Gusuku sites on imposing elevated locations, are evidence for the social structure over much of that period, while the sacred sites provide mute testimony to the rare survival of an ancient form of religion into the modern age. The wide-ranging economic and cultural contacts of the Ryukyu Islands over that period gave rise to a unique culture.
The site is important because: 1) For several centuries the Ryukyu islands served as a centre of economic and cultural interchange between south-east Asia, China, Korea, and Japan, and this is vividly demonstrated by the surviving monuments. 2) The culture of the Ryukyuan Kingdom evolved and flourished in a special political and economic environment, which gave its culture a unique quality. 3) The Ryukyu sacred sites constitute an exceptional example of an indigenous form of nature and ancestor worship that has survived intact into the modern age alongside other established world religions.
The nine Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu are: 1) Nakijin Castle. built in the late 13th century, and located on the Motobu peninsula; 2) Katsuren Castle; 3) Nakagusuku Castle; 4) Zakimi Castle; 5) Shuri Castle; 6) Sonohyan Utaki Stone Gate; 7) Tamaudun; 8) Shikina En Garden and 9) 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. See Shuri Castle above. Shikinaen Garden (1½ kilometers from Shuri Castle) was used by the royal family and restored after World War II with 20 years of work; Website: okinawatravelinfo.com
Restoration of the Ryukyu Kingdom Sites
According to UNESCO: The entire region suffered considerable damage during the Second World War and reconstruction work has taken place on many of the component parts. In Japan the authenticity of the form/design and materials/substance of each part of the property remains at a very high level, as they have been rehabilitated and restored under strict rules for more than one hundred years. Authenticity of location/setting has been maintained in that none of the component parts of the property has been moved from its original location and traces of buildings discovered through archeological excavations have been preserved underground.
“Extensive measures have been taken to make it possible to differentiate original materials from those used for rehabilitation and restoration, while sufficient care has been taken in the course of choosing materials. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, there were some cases of using improper materials, but adequate steps have been taken to replace these with proper materials or to establish clear distinctions between proper and improper materials. All the projects for such procedures are based on detailed surveys and research conducted in advance.
“The main hall of Shuri-jô was restored not only on the basis of the surveyed plans and photographs of the actual architecture as it was seen before its destruction by the wartime fire, but also in strict accordance with the findings of the excavation covering a wide area. The exact replica of the lost structure is now a great monument symbolizing the pride of the Ryukyu people.
“Shikinaen was restored utilizing similar procedures, the royal villa and garden being recreated with great precision. The underground structural remains were excavated and documented with the utmost care and, when necessary, covered by layers of innocuous earth or sand in order to facilitate differentiation from the structure restored on the original site, thus protecting the existing remains from the work of restoration and rehabilitation while preserving them in good condition. With respect to craftsmen’s skill, a high level and homogeneous authenticity is properly maintained and their traditional techniques are applied to all projects for restoration, rehabilitation and preservation on an extensive scale.
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. Thirty-five 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,
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.
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 Spots in Okinawa visitokinawa.jp ; Dive Sites Reef Encounters Dive Bum Okinawa Dive Bum Oki ;
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 see a dozen different turtles in one dive. The turtles like to come to this spot to sleep.
Naha is also the jumping off point for sightseeing tours of the Ryukyu Islands. Wonderful islands just an hour away and accessible by ferry boats are great for snorkeling and diving. The best coral reefs are off Ishigakjima and Iriomotejima near Taiwan. 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.
Kerama Islands (32 kilometers southwest of Okinawa) is a group of islands in Okinawa Prefecture attract divers from around the globe with their extensive coral reefs and ultra-clear water. The sea around the islands has been nicknamed "Kerama blue" and can be transparent up to 30-meters deep. It can be quite crowded as divers descend from tour boats one after another into the azure sea to explore the colorful coral and multitude of fish species. Sea turtles are often spotted. [Source: Atsuki Kira, Yomiuri Shimbun, October 6, 2012]
Atsuki Kira wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “The islands' popularity has been hard on the reefs, causing local entities to mull limiting access to dive sites. In a bid to both support the tourist industry and preserve the natural environment, local governments and nature organizations have begun to discuss restricting the number of divers to the area, with special priority given to users who are willing to contribute to nature preservation.
“Tourism to the Kerama Islands took off during the economic bubble of the 1980s, at one time logging more than 200,000 visitors per year. A diving boom prompted tour companies to adopt larger vessels that could sail direct from Okinawa Island, about 40 kilometers away. Yoshimitsu Higa, chairman of the diving association on Akajima, one of the Kerama Islands, recalled the rough-and-ready practices of those days "Some operators anchored their vessels by tying chains around the coral," he said.
“Coral was damaged from being touched by divers or inadvertently kicked with their fins. Some boats dumped sewage in the area, further harming the reefs. A more recent problem has been the explosion of crown-of-thorns starfish and conches that devour coral. Rising sea temperatures are blamed for the species' invasion, which have proved a nuisance to deal with.
“Local governments have turned to legal measures to strike a balance between tourism and conservation. The villages of Zamami and Tokashiki in the islands have used the Law on Promotion of Ecotourism, which allows for natural resources such as coral that are vulnerable to excessive human contact to be designated "special natural tourism resources." The designation allows limits to be placed on access. The two villages applied for local waters up to 30-meters deep to be designated special tourism resources. The applications were approved in June by the Environment Ministry and other entities — a national first. Zamami and Tokashiki continue to study regulations such as restricting the number of divers permitted to enter certain areas and allocating specific zones to certain businesses. Ideas they like will be made into municipal ordinances.
Whale Watching Around Okinawa
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 Kerama 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. Humpbacks come to the Kerama islands come between January and March to raise their young. In April they head north to feed. The boat sometimes takes about an hour to reach the place where the humpbacks hang out. Other times they are spotted in a few minutes.
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 dives the guides does his best to predict where it will show up next. Website: whale watching in Okinawa visitokinawa.jp
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 ago rules were passed that limited the number of whale watching boats so the whales wouldn't be harassed.
Image Sources: Okinawa Convention and Visitors Bureau except military map (Wikipedia), caves (Camp Schwab site) and whale watching (Okinawa Tourist Info)
Text Sources: JNTO (Japan National Tourist Organization), Japan.org, Japan News, Japan Times, Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan Ministry of the Environment, UNESCO, Japan Guide website, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Updated in July 2020