Okinawa is the name for a prefecture in Japan which is also an archipelago of some 160 islands, some of which are inhabited and the vast majority of which are not. As Okinawa lies off the coast of Kyushu, it enjoys a mostly subtropical climate and is known as one of the best places to come in Japan if you are looking for some sand, sun and surf.
Okinawa is also known for having a distinct feel to the rest of Japan as it is so far south and it is makes a refreshing change from the big cities for which the country is always associated with such as Tokyo and Osaka.
It is slightly more laborious to make the trip to Okinawa than a number of other places in Japan, but if a change of pace and some fantastic outdoor scenery is what you are after, then this is an excellent choice.
Here are the 25 best things to do in Okinawa…
1. Start at Okinawa Honto
Okinawa Honto is the largest island in Okinawa which is why it is often used as a starting point to any trip to this part of Japan.
This island also used to be a military based during World War Two and you will still find an American base here to this day which carries out drills, so don’t be surprised if you see planes racing overhead when you visit.
The main city on the island is Naha which is where you will find a clutch of attractions such as museums that will fill you in on some of the military background of Okinawa Honto.
2. Go spelunking at Okinawa World
Okinawa World is located on Okinawa Honto and is a theme park which also encompasses the Gyokusendo Cave.
The chamber spans almost 900 meters and is filled with stunning stalagmites and stalactites.
Outside the cave you will find a number of souvenir stalls where you can pick up some local trinkets including snake liquor which is one of the delicacies in Okinawa.
To see the snakes before they got turned into liquor, you can also visit the neighboring snake exhibition which is close to the cave.
3. Have an adventure on Iriomote
If you want to get the most out of a visit to Okinawa and like to be active while you are on holiday, then make sure you head to Iriomote.
This island is close to Ishigaki Island and it is known for having an interior which is covered in thick jungle.
On a trip here you can trek through the jungle as part of a hiking tour, or you can also choose to kayak around the island.
As a result, this is the best island to choose if you want to see a bit more of the rural side of life in Okinawa, as some of the other islands are better known for their beaches and diving options rather than bushwhacking.
4. Dive at the underwater ruins of Yonaguni
The island of Yonaguni is known for its amazing underwater ruins, so if you are in search of some exceptional diving in Okinawa then this is the place to come.
Many of the underwater ruins here are made of solid rock and some experts have put the pieces at around 8,000 years old.
Legends even abound that some of the ruins are part of a lost continent called Mu, and you will find rock formations that look like staircases as well as rooms and walls.
One thing to note is that the currents around the ruins can be strong and changeable so diving here is mostly recommended for intermediate and experienced divers.
5. Try the local food
One of the great delights of Okinawa is that it has a completely different cuisine to many other parts of Japan.
Many people will tell you that Okinawan cuisine is similar to that of Taiwan and pork is a staple of many dishes served here.
You will also find that many dishes use ingredients such as purple yams and bitter melon and, as this is a tropical part of Japan, you can also sample a range of delicious tropical fruit such as papaya, dragon fruit, calamansi and papaya.
6. Go whale watching
If you are visiting Okinawa then one of the best things to do is go whale watching.
From January to March the area is known for its humpback whales which swim in the waters off the southern coast have migrated to Japan from Alaska.
One of the best places to see the whales is around the Kerama Islands and you can book a whale watching tour which allows you to go out in a boat and get as close to these spectacular animals as possible.
7. Visit Shuri Castle
Shuri Castle is one of the main attractions in Naha City on Okinawa Honto and would have been the home of the rulers of the Ryukyu Kingdom in the days of old.
The main reason to come here is to enjoy the gusuku architecture of the castle which is built in the traditional Okinawan style.
Unfortunately the castle has been destroyed several times and had to be restored in both 1958 and 1992, so the building that stands now is not the original.
8. Enjoy bird watching on Kume
Kume Island is one of the best islands to visit in Okinawa if you want to take in a wide range of local plant and wildlife.
The island is also a national park and one of the top activities here is the chance to go trekking through the lush foliage that covers much of Kume.
As much of the central part of the island is given over to natural wetlands, many people come here for the bird watching opportunities as a huge number of local species congregate here and hide in the tall grasses and bushes.
9. Try the noodles on the Yaeyama Islands
Okinawa is known for its unique cuisine which you won’t find across most of Japan, but even across the islands you will find some traditional dishes that don’t exist in other places.
If you are traveling to the Yaeyama Islands in Okinawa then you need to make sure that you try the Yaeyama soba which are different to traditional soba noodles in Japan and are made of white wheat.
They are then cooked in a pork broth and topped with more pork, fish cakes and aromatic ginger.
10. Go sailing
Until recently sailing was not a particularly popular activity around Okinawa, although now it is experiencing something of a boom.
For this reason, if you are a budding sailor then you shouldn’t miss the chance to sign up for a sailing trip with one of the local sailing companies and you can either cruise around some of the islands here such as the Kerama Islands as part of a tour, or you can charter your own boat and island hop at your leisure.
This gives you the chance to check out any islands that take your fancy, many of which are uninhabited, letting you feel as if you have your own private island paradise for the day.
11. Explore the local villages on Taketomi
Taketomi Island is one of the smallest islands in Okinawa so it is a good choice if you want to see a lot in a short space of time, as you can get around most of the island quite quickly.
If you choose to trek around the entire island, then you only need to leave a few hours, but you will also be able to take in the little traditional villages here at the same time and see how people have lived and worked in this part of Japan for centuries.
To that end, you can even choose to travel according to the traditional form of transportation here which is on a cart pulled by a lumbering local buffalo.
12. Take in the views at Akajima Island
If you have a little time to explore Okinawa then one of the most picturesque islands is Akajima Island which is often simply referred to as Aka Island.
The island is relatively small, but it is well known for its observation towers which you can scale and which give you unparalleled vistas across the islands and across wider Okinawa.
This is also the place to come if you want to take some spectacular photographs of Okinawa and you can also go swimming here or hike across the island as part of a day trip.
14. Try ocean walking on Nagannu
Nagannu Island is part of the southern island chain in Okinawa and you can get to it from nearby Naha if you take the ferry across.
This island is known for its delightful and clean sandy beaches, so if you just want a relaxing beach holiday then this is a good choice.
The sands beneath the sea however are equally pretty which is why Nagannu is now known as one of the best places to come if you want to try ocean walking in Okinawa.
You can strap on some weights here as well as a helmet and then walk along the ocean floor and take in all the colorful marine life here as it swims all around you.
15. Go fishing
Okinawa is known for its fishing industry and one of the main attractions here is the chance to enjoy some of the most amazing offshore fishing opportunities in the world.
A great activity if you are a keen angler is to charter a boat and then go out to fish in the azure seas around the many islands here, and the waters teem with a range of exotic species.
These include varieties of fish such as tuna, marlin and mahi mahi, and many fishing trips also come with fishing equipment so that you do not need to rent your own in advance.
16. Visit Nago
Nago is one of the cities on Okinawa Honto and it is worth a visit to see some of its signature attractions such as the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium.
The aquarium is part of the larger Ocean Expo Park and is known for having a tank that measure over 7,000 cubic meters.
Just some of the marine life on show includes sharks, rays and turtles, and this can be a good place to come if you don’t plan on diving in Okinawa.
17. Try the local tipple at Yonaguni
Yonaguni Island is known for being one of the furthest inhabited islands from Japan and when the weather is clear you can even look across to Taiwan from this island.
Many people come here for the diver as the waters are untouched and as such do not suffer from pollution or over fishing, meaning that they are amazingly clear and also teeming with marine creatures.
The main reason to come here is to try the local tipple for which this island is so well known which is named awamori and which is made from distilled long grain rice.
18. Dive with sharks
The main reason that many people come to Okinawa is for the diving, and one of the best things you can see when you are under the sea if the shark life for which the islands are famous.
These include both whale sharks and hammerhead sharks and you can either go out on a boat tour to the islands where you are most likely to see the sharks, or swim out from the shore to some of the famous shark spots.
19. Check out the history at Itoman
Itoman on Okinawa Honto is a town that is known for its history and you can visit spots here such as the Okinawa Peace Park which commemorates the legendary Battle of Okinawa.
The Peace Park is made up of several areas including a memorial called the Cornerstone of Peace which has engravings of the names of the men and women who died here during the battle.
You can also check out the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum at the same time which will fill you in on some of the history of the battle.
Finally there is also the Okinawa Peace Memorial Hall which has a tower and art work that commemorates the battle.
20. Go surfing
If you like surfing then Okinawa is widely said to be one of the best places in Japan to take to the waves.
One thing to keep in mind however is that the waves here usually break over reefs which means that they tend to be shallow and can be dangerous if you are not an experienced surfer.
Many people surf the beaches around Okinawa Honto but you can also surf off the coast of some of the smaller islands depending on your experience levels.
21. Shop at Makishi Market
Makishi Market is located on Okinawa Honto and has the nickname ‘The Kitchen of Okinawa’ which tells you all you need to know about the array of produce on sale here.
The market dates back to the Second World War and now there are some 400 shops here where you can browse and pick up some of the most famous products in Okinawa such as preserved sea snake and seaweed.
There are also a number of cafes and restaurants here which serve traditional Okinawan dishes made with local ingredients not found in other parts of Japan, so it is well worth a visit for this alone.
22. Swim with rays at Ishigaki
If you like diving then you will be spoilt for choice in the waters around Okinawa.
If you want to swim with manta rays in particular then you need to head to Ishigaki Island which was listed in the Michelin Green Guide Japan and is known for its crystal clear seas in spots like Kabira Bay.
If you want to find the graceful rays however then you need to head to a place known as Manta Scramble where you can dive or snorkel and glide through the water with these amazing aquatic creatures.
As well as its famous rays, Ishigaki Island is also known for its sand, as the grains here are shaped like stars.
23. Visit Yonaguni Ethnographic Museum
Located on the island of Yonaguni is the Yonaguni Ethnographic Museum which is one of the few museums on the islands.
The museum is run by a local resident and the collections feature many of her own personal memorabilia and artifacts which tell the story of the history and culture of Yonaguni.
You can even learn about the unique language and writing systems of the island here and the museum really is a treasure trove of information about this little known part of Japan.
24. Enjoy the nightlife at Naha
Naha is the capital of Okinawa Honto and this is one of the best places to indulge in a little nightlife, as many of the other islands can be rather sleepy in the evenings.
One of the great things about the nightlife on Naha is that there are a huge number of venues to choose from, and many of these play traditional Okinawan folk music which will give you an insight into the local culture of these islands.
25. Relax on Miyako-jima
Miyako-jima is known for being one of the prettiest islands in Okinawa and many tourists flock here to see what all the fuss is about.
The main reason why Miyako-jima is so famous is that it has some of the most beautiful beaches in the region, which is saying something, and as such this island makes the perfect spot if you just want to relax in an island paradise for a few days and soak in some sun.
Of course you can also go diving and snorkeling here as well as kayak around the various pristine beaches.