Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture, is famous for its emerald blue beaches and warm(er) climate, making it a popular destination for those who want to enjoy resort life without the worry of leaving the country. However, I soon found out that the last part is not entirely the case.
Naha, the biggest city and the main gateway to this chain of islands, is actually closer to Taipei (around 1.5 hour flight) than Tokyo (approx. 3 hour) or any other Japan’s major city and the influence of the sino culture is easily visible. In addition, Okinawa people has a very distinct local dialect it sounded like a completely new language to me (worry not, they also speak standard Japanese). The region also hosts the largest U.S. military presence in Japan and you see them time to time in the cities, so yeah, you know you’re still in Japan but at the same time you feel like you are not, but this just adds more charm to this beautiful region.
My group and I spent most of my times in Okinawa circling the main island (hontou); we went to the Manza Beach (it was windy and not suitable for beach swimming but still warmer than the rest of Japan), saw the famous whale sharks at the Churaumi Aquarium, took a lazy stroll around the botanical garden, wandered around the underground cave at Gyokusendo and visited Shuri Castle – this red one is definitely not your standard japanese castle. For meals, we mostly found what we need/want around Kokusai-doori Street in central Naha. I thoroughly enjoyed our trip and I like how easy going the locals were. Just note that the tourist spots are quite spread out so you would need to rent a car or a daily cab. We did use the local bus to go to the cave and monorail to get to/from the airport but I don’t think it’s time efficient to rely solely on public transportation.
If you have time and want to be closer to nature, do visit one of the smaller islands (ritou) as they have well preserved mangrove forests for some lazy kayaking and crystal-clear sea for underwater activities.
Okinawa has plenty to offer and I highly recommend to visit, especially if you are a foreigner who live or stay mid/long term in Japan as I guarantee you will find something different from other places in the country. It is also not as expensive as you might think; there are several budget airlines connecting Okinawa and the rest of the country and if you want to use ANA/JAL, their flight + hotel packages offer great value for all kind of travellers. Another bonus for aviation geeks: ANA and JAL often utilize their wide-body fleets on the Okinawa route which should make your flight more enjoyable.