Best Things to Do and Places to Go in Okinawa: The Complete Guide

Ishigaki OKinawa Okinawa

Okinawa is a group of about 160 beautiful islands located in the southern part of Japan. The archipelago is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Japan, known for its tropical climate, white sandy beaches, colorful coral reefs and rich unique culture. The Okinawan culture is very interesting and is quite different from other parts in Japan. As Okinawa is very close to Taiwan and China, the Japanese, Taiwanese and Chinese cultures have all had a big influence on Okinawan culture. There are also some historical spots, including a number of World War II sites that you can visit.

In spite of its somewhat remote location, Okinawa is visited by a great number of tourists all year round that come to the area to explore the beautiful nature and blue seas among other things. Okinawa prefecture consists of a number of islands, some of which are connected to each other by bridge, while others are accessible only by plane or ferry. Each island is different in its own way and you can pick your destination based on the location and different characteristics that might suit your trip the best. In this article, we will give you all the tips about the best things to do and the best places to go in Okinawa!

Where is Okinawa?

Okinawa Prefecture is the southernmost part of Japan, located in the East China Sea, approximately 1,600 km away from Tokyo. The island group is spread out over 400 km and out of the 160 islands, 49 are uninhabited. The prefectural capital and biggest city is Naha, which is situated on the main island, that also happens to be the largest island. There are more than 1.4 million people living there, and it has the 9th highest population density in all of Japan. 

Coral OKinawa

Best time to visit Okinawa

Okinawa is known for its subtropical climate with pleasant temperatures all year round. Though, we recommend visiting Okinawa in the spring or autumn, when the beaches are open and the temperature isn’t too hot. You will want to avoid the rainy season in Okinawa, which usually lasts from early May to early June. In addition, typhoons can be a problem in Okinawa in July and August, and even occasionally in September. All things considered, the best time to visit Okinawa is from March to early May or late September to December.

okinawa1

How to get to Okinawa

From Tokyo, there are daily, direct flights that take you to Okinawa in less than 3 hours. This is definitely the fastest and easiest way to get Okinawa island for an affordable price – we recommend you book well in advance. You can also take domestic flights to Okinawa from other airports such as Kansai International Airport in Osaka. In addition, there are daily direct flights to Ishigaki, Miyako and Shimoji airport from several airports including Narita and Haneda. Okinawa Airport also offers some international connections to East Asia.

How to get around in Okinawa

Once you arrive in Okinawa, you will need to figure out what form of transportation you will be using to get around the islands. As the public transportation system in Okinawa is not nearly as developed as the bigger cities on the mainland of Japan, most people rent a car to get around the main island. There are a number of car rental shops around Naha Airport. Make sure to make a reservation online prior to your visit, as they are often fully booked whenever there is a holiday! If you want to travel to the more isolated islands, you can take a ferry or a domestic flight, and rent a car or bike closer to where you are staying.

Okinawa Main Island

Shurijo Castle and Naminoue Shrine

The main island of Okinawa is home to a number of amazing places. Naha city is the prefectural capital of Okinawa and boasts a number of famous tourist spots such as Shurijo Castle and Naminoue Shrine. Shurijo Castle was an iconic structure in Okinawa with a long history. It was once a main castle for the Ryukyu Kingdom, which governed the island from the 15th to 19th century. It stood on a hill overlooking the Naha port which functioned as a trade center at the time. Unfortunately, a big fire burned down most of the castle in 2019. However it is currently being rebuilt and some parts are available for tourism.

Shurijo

Kokusai Dori

If you want to try some local specialties or get gifts for your family, visit Kokusai Dori, a lively street full of great restaurants and retail shops. Also, it can be a lot of fun to experience Okinawa’s unique culture by checking out some local festivals that are held there every year. For example, the Eisa festival that is held during the weekend after the Okinawa Obon holiday. Young people wear traditional Okinawan clothes and dance to traditional drums. Kokusai Dori is a must visit when you are in Naha.

Okinawa shops naha kokusai dori

Okinawa Peace Memorial Park

At the end of World War II, Operation Iceberg took place on Okinawa Island, one of the most cruel battles during war. It resulted in the huge amount of casualties with a few hundred thousands deaths and major destruction to the island. Okinawa Peace Memorial Park (沖縄県平和祈念資料館) is the memorial to the Battle of Okinawa which represents the history that everyone should know about. The park is open 24 hrs and is free to enter.

Churaumi Aquarium

Churaumi Aquarium is the biggest aquarium in Japan and the second biggest in the world. Here you can see animals living in and/or around the Okinawa sea. “Chura” derives from Okinawa’s dialect which means beautiful while “umi” means sea in Japanese. Thus, this aquarium is exhibiting the beautiful sea of Okinawa. Animals that can be seen here include whale sharks and manta rays swim in a massive 7,500m3 water tank.

Ishigaki Island

After spending a couple of days in the city of Naha, fly to Ishigaki Island to have a relaxing experience out in the beautiful nature! Ishigaki Island is one of the most popular remote islands that Okinawa has to offer. It is the 3rd largest island in Okinawa, and located about 410 km southwest of Naha.

Hit the beach

Ishigaki has some of Okinawa’s and Japan’s best white sandy beaches that you don’t want to miss out on. One of the most popular and family friendly beaches is Sukuji Beach, that has lots of shallow areas. Yonehara Beach in the east part of Kabira Bay have some of the most clear water on the island.

Sunset beach Ishigaki OKinawa

Marine sports

As Okinawa is made up of islands, of course there are endless places that you can enjoy various marine sports and activities. Ishigaki in particular is great for this, and you will certainly be amazed by the beautiful ocean, that is perfect for marine sports such as diving and snorkeling. It can be a bit tough to do these kinds of things on your own, especially if you don’t have the gear, so we recommend taking a tour with a locla guide.

Here are some of the best tours that we recommend:

1. Snorkel the Emerald Waters of Ishigaki Island

2. Try an Introduction Diving Course in Ishigaki Island

Stargazing

Ishigaki is also great when it comes to stargazing, as there is very little light pollution from residential areas. There are a number of luxury hotels that can assure you a comfortable and relaxing stay with amazing views of the water.

Taketomi Island and Kohama Island

Ishigaki is also close to Taketomi Island and Kohama Island. Taketomi is a small island with traditional houses and sandy beaches. If you are are interested in learning more about the the history of Okinawan culture, you will want to visit Taketomi as the original Ryukyu culture is very well-preserved.

Traditional Taketomi

You will feel like you have traveled back to ancient times when you pass the traditional houses and visit the traditional festivals in Taketomi. It is also a rather small island, which means you can move around the island by bicycle or even ride on a water buffalo carriage! It also has beautiful beaches on the west side of the island.

Kohama Island

Kohama Island is known for its sugar cane fields, the bright green sugar cane fields spread out around the island are a beautiful contrast with the clear blue sea and white sandy beaches! Taketomi Island and Kohama Island are both accessible by ferry from Ishigaki Island, and offer a relaxing experience to those who prefer small, calm islands away from the bigger crowds.

Miyakojima

Miyakojima is another remote island with some of the best beaches in all of Japan. It is situated approximately 300 km southwest of Naha, and widely known for its beautiful beaches and coral reefs. Yonaha Maehama Beach is a beautiful white sand beach, stretching about 7 km. Take a relaxing stroll along the sandy beach while taking in the scenic beauty and feeling the sea breeze.

Irabu-Ohashi Bridge

Irabu-Ohashi Bridge, which is 3,540m long , isone of the longest bridges in Japan. It connects Miyakojima with another beautiful island called Irabu Island and can be a lot of fun to drive over if you have a car.

Iriomote Island

Iriomote Island is the 2nd largest island among the Okinawa islands. Most of the island is undeveloped with more than 90% of the island being jungle and mangrove forests. Only about 2,400 people live in the coastal parts of the island that is described as one of the treasure boxes of nature. Thanks to it’s unique geographical features, there are a large variety of activities and experiences that you can take advantage of. Join exciting tours which take you to the mangroves full of wildlife. Options include boat cruises, SUP, and canoeing among other things. If you are looking for something more exciting, go trekking through the scenic rivers and gorges or join a highly-recommended jungle cruise.

Scuba Diving

Scuba diving is also a good choice to explore the beautiful sea. You don’t need to have a scuba diving license, and an instructor will be with you the whole time to support and guide you during your dive. From Ishigaki Island, Iriomote Island is accessible by taking a ferry that runs only four times a day. 

Iriomote

Yonaguni Island

Yonaguni Island is located at the westernmost point of Japan, located about 110 km away from the Taiwanese coast. It is well known for it’s amazing scenic spots with the beautiful blue ocean in the background. The unique, steep rock formations along the coast line represent the power of nature, and fascinate visitors with a totally different experience from other remote islands. Yonaguni Island is also a home to the rare Yonaguni small horses, one of only eight existing horse breeds native to Japan. You can ride them and explore the island and even go for a ride on the sandy beach! Yonaguni Island is accessible by ferry or plane from Ishigaki Island. 

Kerama Islands

Akajima Island

This tiny island is one of the Kerama islands, located south of Okinawa Island. The length of the island is only 11 km and around 300 people live there. To explore it, you can just walk around or ride a bicycle if you prefer that. You will be able to see marine turtles in the sea or sunbathing on the beach. The sea surrounding the island is extremely beautiful. It only takes 50 min by ferry to get to the island from the capital of Okinawa, Naha, making it the perfect day trip!

Nagannu Island

Nagannu is another island belonging to the one of Kerama islands, located just 20 minutes away from Naha by high-speed ferry. This island is uninhabited but there are still some shops and restaurants. Since nobody lives there, its pristine and immaculate beaches and sea are strikingly beautiful. It has also become a famous diving spot. If you like exploring the ocean and want to learn more about the stunning tropical paradise that this island holds, we recommend you try scuba diving.

Whale Watching

From the end of December until early April, you can see humpback whales in Okinawa. One of the most popular places for whale watching are the Kerama Islands. They are are made up of 36 beautiful islands, including Zamami and Tokashiki island. You can book a tour to go to Kerama islands by boat, departing near the airport.

Kerama Islands Tours

1. 1day kayak tour in Kerama Islands and Zamami Island

2. Kerama Islands Snorkeling & Kayaking Uninhabited Island Tour

3. Naha: Full-Day Snorkeling Experience in the Kerama Islands, Okinawa

Hateruma Island

Hateruma Island is the southernmost inhabited island in Japan. There are about 500 people living here, and one third of them are engaged in agriculture or farming. With a total area of 15 km, it boasts beautiful nature and you are sure to have a pleasant stay. Visit Nishihama Beach, where you can see sea turtles swimming in the crystal-clear water or explore the small island and meet the welcoming local people. For the best stargazing experience, head to Hateruma Observatory Tower for an impressive view of the stars. It will definitely be one of the highlights of your trip in Japan!    

Turtle Okinawa Sea

Kume Island

Kume Island is a small remote island, located about 100 km west of the mainland of Okinawa. From the main island, it takes three hours to get there by ferry, and 30 minutes by plane. The volcanic island is officially designated as a Prefectural Natural Park, and is visited by a small number of tourists every year. One of the highlights is Hatenohama Beach, a large sandbar located off the coast of Kume Island. It is comprised of three sandbars, and is only accessible by boat. The 7 km long white beach offers breathtaking views, especially when the sun sets. Mifuga Rock is another well known attraction: a giant rock formation with a unique shape. It has a hole in the center of it which makes for a unique yet scenic view of the sea.

Senaga Island

Senaga Island is located south of Naha Airport. It is connected to the Okinawa island by a bridge and accessible by car, bike and buses that depart from the airport. Because of it’s convenient location, many people stop by in order to enjoy the great views of the sea on their way back home or right after they get to Naha. You can also see big airplanes flying overhead from Naha Airport. Senega Island Umikaji Terrace is a huge shopping complex, opened in 2015, with a number of restaurants, cozy cafes, souvenir shops and more. Many restaurants serve special Okinawan dishes with locally produced ingredients. It is an ideal resort island for anyone, no matter how old or young.

Kouri Island

Kouri Island is a small, peaceful island, located about an hour and a half drive from Naha city, and connected to Yagaji Island by a bridge completed in 2005. The circular island’s main destination is Kouri Beach, a popular swimming destination that can get rather crowded with tourists in the summer season. Visit the Kouri Ocean Tower for some a breathtaking panoramic views of the island and the sea at 82 m. There is also a museum that exhibits a large collection of beautiful shells collected all over the world. The island is also known as a spiritual spot that is supposed to bring luck in love.

The combination of the beautiful scenery, with crystal clear water and white sandy beaches along with a subtropical climate, makes Okinawa a popular destination for everyone. Its unique culture and welcoming atmosphere are another reason why you should visit this amazing part of Japan. Visit Okinawa in spring or in autumn to avoid the rainy season, hot summers and the occasional typhoon. To make the most of your experience, we recommend you fly in to Naha airport and discover the islands with a rental car from there. We hope you get a chance to explore some of the best things to do and places to visit in Okinawa from our list!

Sunset ishigaki okinawa

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