Okinawa is a Japanese prefecture that consists of over 150 islands in the East China Sea between Taiwan and Japan’s mainland. The Southwest Islands are a chain of semitropical, coral-fringed islands with much beauty.
The Kerama Islands are three main islands – Zamami-jima, Aka-jima and Tokashiki-jima. These offer visitors lovely scenery and places for relaxation and are only a day trip away from Naha. They can get rather crowded in the summertime. If you prefer to spend more time here you can get accommodations at a minshuku or type of Japanese Bed & Breakfast.
Yakushima was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993 and has craggy mountain peaks. The island is home to the famous yakusugi – ancient cedar trees that are known to have been the inspiration for some of the scenes in Miyazaki Hayao’s animation classic Princess Mononoke.
Visitors can go hiking among the high peaks and in the mossy forests and the island also has some sandy beaches. The interior of the island in one of the wettest places in Japan since the mountains take every last drop of moisture from the passing clouds. In the winter the peaks might be covered in snow and still the coast remains balmy.
Ishigaki-jima also has wonderful beaches and offers dive sites, long drives and day hikes. It is the most populated and developed island in the Yaeyama group. It is tropical all over.
Just a short distance from this island you’ll find Iriomote-jima with dense jungles and mangrove swamps over 90% of the island. It is fringed with some of the most lovely coral reefs in all of Japan. This island is home to the yamaneko, a nocturnal and rarely seen wildcat.
There are some rivers that go deep into the lush interior so they can be explored by riverboat or kayak. You can also enjoy sun-drenched breaches, go diving or snorkeling and enjoy nature.
In Naha you’ll find Tsuboya Pottery Street which is a center of ceramic production from 1682. Ryukyu kilns were consolidated here by royal decree. Most of the shops along this street sell all of the popular Okinawan ceramics among them shiisa or lion-dog roof guardians and containers for serving awamori, the local firewater. Along the lanes that branch off the main street some classic old Okinawan houses can be seen.
The highlight of Peace Memorial Park is the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum. The museum informs visitors of the suffering of the Okinawan people during the invasion of the island and under the subsequent American occupation. The purpose is to remind people of the horrors of war so that such suffering is not repeated. A free English-language audio guide is available.
Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Art Museum was opened in 2007 and lets visitors take a look into the history of Okinawa, its culture and natural history. It is one of the best museums in Japan. The exhibits are nicely displayed and have great bilingual interpretive signage. There are impressive special exhibits with an emphasis on local artists.
Yoron Minzoku-mura is located at the southeastern tip of Yoron Island offering an interesting collection of traditional thatch-roofed island dwellings and storehouses, containing exhibits on the island’s culture and history. If you get someone to translate you can learn a great deal about the island’s heritage and dialect.
On the southeast coast of Kyushu Island you’ll find the Yakusugi Museum in a forested place with views of the sea. The museum has informative and wonderfully designed exhibits about yakasugi trees and the history of the islanders’ relationship with them. They have an excellent audio guide in English.
Furuzamami Beach on Zamami Island is an awesome 700 meter stretch of white sand with clear, shallow water and some coral. The beach is a great place to enjoy a day where you can rent snorkeling gear. Food stalls, showers and toilets are available.
Kabira-wan is a lovely, sheltered bay with white-sand shores by Ishigaki Island with a couple of interesting clump like islands offshore. It is more of a wading than a swimming beach and has an active glass-bottom boat traffic going by.
On Ishigaki Island you’ll also find Miyara Donchi the unusual home of a Ryukyu kingdom official that dates back to 1819. Since the house is still an official residence visitors can look into the rooms from outside and enjoy the small garden.
On this island is also the landmark 730 Intersection as you walk southwest along the waterfront toward the ferry terminal.
Shuri-jo is an interesting reconstructed castle in Naha, the capital of the Okinawa Prefecture. It was originally built in the 14th century and served as the administrative center and royal residence of the Ryukyu kingdom until the 19th century. Visitors can enter the fascinating Seiden which has exhibits on the castle and the Okinawan royals.
Shikina-en Gardens is located about 4 km east of the city center of Naha. This is a Chinese-style garden that has stone bridges, a viewing pavilion and a villa once belonging to the Ryukyu royal family.
Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium has been built around the world’s largest aquarium tank, housing a large variety of marine life, including whale sharks. “Churaumi” means “clear, beautiful seas” in the Okinawa language. The aquarium opened its doors in 2002 inside the Okinawa Commemorative National Government Park located in the northwest area of Okinawa Island.
There are a total of 77 tanks on display. The main Kuroshio Sea Tank stretches from the first floor to the second. It held the place as the world’s largest acrylic panel in the Guinness Book of Records until 2008. Here visitors can view schools of whale sharks and manta ray as well as lot of other sea life both small and large. The tank has a half-dome shaped observation space.
At the Life in Inoh or touch pool visitors can touch real starfish and sea cucumbers. The Coral Sea Tank is open to the sky. By supplying natural sunlight and fresh ocean water to the tank interior it has been possible to make the world’s first large-scale cultivation of living coral. The aquarium cultivates about 800 colonies of coral from nearby Okinawa waters.
Oko-no-taki Waterfall is found on the west coast of Yakushima and is the highest waterfall at 88m.
Southeast Botanical Gardens in Okinawa City is an expansive park with subtropical plants, ponds and some animals. The park is divided into two zones – the smaller Botanical Garden side and the larger Water Garden.
The Water Garden has lovely ponds with rolling wooded hills and wide open tree-lined grasslands. There is a tram that will take visitors around the park with a guide. The park is well worth a visit in February to see the beautiful cherry blossoms.
The grasslands all through the park are great for picnics. There is also The Partnership Shop and Cafe that has a gift shop, information desk, the Aloha Blossom Restaurant and Chibana Gelato frozen treat stand.