If you want to enjoy nice, pristine beaches with crystal clear waters and warm climate, Okinawa is the place for you. Okinawa, once known as the Ryukyu Kingdom, is now one of the most sought after places for a holiday vacation. The birthplace of Karate is Japan’s summer jewel. Many Japanese head there during summertime or even off season to enjoy the various attractions and the emerald sea. With its sub-tropical climate, you can enjoy a lot of sun in Okinawa.
If you are headed to Japan, I suggest you also consider going down south to Okinawa. You will not be disappointed with the view and all the fun activities that are in store for you there. You can also experience the Okinawan culture. Explore the castles of the Ryukyu Kingdom that once ruled the southern isles. If you have a thirst for history and adventure, Okinawa would surely be a place to satisfy you.
The southernmost part of Japan belongs to the Okinawa Prefecture. The Okinawa Prefecture consists of two thirds of the Ryukyu archipelago. Okinawa Islands is the principal island group in the prefecture. Naha, the prefectural capital, is located within Okinawa Islands. If you want to go there, you can take a plane from Haneda airport directly to Naha airport.
There are a lot of ways to have fun in Japan’s southern isles. If you want to explore Okinawa, here are a few ways to do it.
1. Visit Okinawa’s Churaumi Aquarium
This is the first on my list because I love aquariums. Churaumi Aquarium is the largest aquarium in Japan and the second largest in the whole world. It is located within the Motobu district. From Naha airport, it is two hours by car and three hours by bus. It was opened in 2002 and has been gaining a lot of local and international visitors. See the various marine creatures inside Churaumi Aquarium. There are many attractions inside Churaumi that you will enjoy. If you are traveling with kids, I’m sure that they will definitely have a great time! What I love about this place is the restaurant and café “Ocean Blue” where you can sit back and relax while eating with a spectacular view of the large aquarium among the fishes and even manta rays and whale sharks. It almost feels like you are having a meal underwater! You can also eat at “Inoh” if you are up for an Okinawan buffet-style meal. You will have a great view of the East China Sea while you eat as it is on the fourth floor of Churaumi. You can buy souvenirs in “Blue Manta” shop that features original Churaumi aquarium products. If you make a reservation a week (7 days to be exact) in advance, you can rent an audio guide for free to help you as you go through Churaumi’s recommended course. And if you go after 4 p.m. there are actually ticket discounts when you purchase them. “Chura” in Churaumi means beautiful in the Okinawan dialect. And it really is a beautiful place for you and your family to enjoy!
2. Take a tour in the Ocean Expo Park
Churaumi is a part of the Ocean Expo Park. But aside from the beautiful aquarium, there are also other things to see in the outdoor park. The park covers an area of three kilometers on the tip of the Motobu Peninsula. It is a large park and you would need to ride small shuttle buses to fully explore it. You can buy a day pass valid for one day for 200 yen to use the shuttle buses. You can take long walks inside the park and enjoy nature. Visit the Oceanic Culture Museum just beside the park’s central gate. There will be exhibits about ocean-based cultures from Asia and the South Pacific. After a long walk, you can also rest while watching the stars inside the museum’s planetarium. There is a Native Okinawan Village inside the park. Admission is free and you are free to wander around the open air museum and the residences and buildings from different time periods and regions in Okinawa. For those who like plants, I recommend going to the Tropical Dream Center where various tropical plants can be seen. There is a well-maintained botanical garden inside and two arboretums. You can get a good view from the 36 meter tall observatory center resembling the Tower of Babel in the Tropical Dream Center. You can also enjoy a nice time at the Emerald Beach to swim and play.
3. Visit Shuri Castle
Shuri is the former capital of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Shuri Castle (Shurijo) once served as the residence of the Ryukyu kings and the kingdom’s administrative center. Shuri Castle is listed as one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites belonging to the Castles of the Ryukyu Kingdom. The castle has experienced many fires and wars over the centuries. The buildings that you will see are the wonderful reconstructions from 1992. You can get a great view over Naha if you climb the castle’s hilltop. The reason why I remember Shuri Castle so much was because of a Japanese drama The Tempest. It featured a lot of scenes within Shurijo. You can explore the interior of the Shurijo in a circular route. You can start at Nanden (South Hall) and see the various exhibits and historical information. You can also explore Hokuden (North Hall). The Seiden (Main Hall) of Shurijo has the kingdom’s throne room and crown. It has been rebuilt in its original style. Shurijo is only twenty minutes by car from Naha airport (if you go there directly). Shurijo is just a five minute bus ride from Shuri Station or you can take a 20 minute walk there if you want to enjoy the local sights.
4. Have fun in the water
There are many water-related activities to do in Okinawa. The crystal clear waters invite you for a swim. You can also do some scuba diving or snorkeling in the various islands of Okinawa. There are many sites that offer rich marine life and beautiful underwater views. You can also try some surfing in the Okinawan beaches. You can take a ride in one of the crystal glass boats that will take you out to sea while watching the beautiful underwater scenery. You can also feed the fishes with the provided food on the boat.
5. Explore the Yaeyama Islands
Take a ferry boat ride from Okinawa Island to Yaeyama. You can spend a relaxing time away from the city with its beautiful beaches and wonderful scenery. You can go to the jungle covered Iriomote Island and explore nature at its best. If you want to experience the traditional Okinawa, you can go to Taketomi Island where there is a beautifully-preserved traditional Ryukyu village. Take a tour in the water buffalo cart rides along Taketomi. Climb the Nagaminoto Tower and get a good view of Taketomi. You can visit Taketomi on a day trip from Ishigaki Island. Yaeyama Islands is a famous spot for snorkeling and scuba diving.
6. Go to Okinawa World
Okinawa World is a theme park that features Okinawan culture. As Okinawa is the home of the habu snake, you will find a snake museum inside Okinawa World. There is also a craft village and a massive natural cave that you can explore. Gyokusendo Cave is the longest of the various caves in the south of Okinawa Island. It is the second longest cave in Japan with a length of five kilometers. 850 meters of the cave is open for public view with its amazing stalactite and stalagmite formations. You can see them as you walk the well-maintained and well-lit paths. The Kingdom Village is a replica of a traditional Ryukyu village. There are workshops introducing traditional Okinawan crafts like weaving, dyeing, paper making, music instruments making, pottery, sugar cone processing and the recently introduced glass blowing. You can get a hands-on experience with the many crafts if you to any of the workshops inside the Kingdom Village. The Habu Park, named after the poisonous habu snake, has a snake museum and a small zoological garden with its snake displays and snake show. You can buy local products in the souvenir shops inside the park. There is also a restaurant where you can eat Okinawan cuisine and even sample the habu snake wine (if you are brave enough).
7. Join the Naha Tug of War
The Naha Tug of War is an annual festival held in the prefecture’s capital, Naha. It is held in Route 58 where a battle of East and West teams commence over a 40 metric ton rope. It is a depiction of the Battle of East and West rulers of the ancient Naha area. A day before the tug of war, there is a parade celebration on Kokusai Street in Naha. During the day of festivities, you will see men dressed in traditional Okinawan costume that will participate in the tug of war. There will be people performing along the rope. Before the start of the tug of war (that normally lasts for 30 minutes), the two kings in their respective palanquins perform a ritual sword contest. Participants usually cut the rope apart and take a part of it as a token.
There are still many places and islands that you can explore in Okinawa. These are just a few of the ways you can have fun in Japan’s southern isles. Go ahead and explore Okinawa! Take your time and enjoy!