10 things about Okinawa you need to know

Unique cuisine, amazing star-gazing, diving and cherry blossoms are just some of the things that make the southernmost prefecture of Japan so special.

The extensive Okinawa prefecture is worth exploring
  • Belinda Luksic
  • March 2019

Certain parts of Japan, apart from the well known cities like Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, can be a bit of a mystery for many travellers. And Okinawa, the country's southernmost prefecture, is probably high on that list. Yes, it is a fantastic beach destination in the (northern hemisphere) summer, but there’s a lot more to this special place…

Okinawa is a collection of 160 islands

Dubbed the “Hawaii of Japan”, the eponymous main island is just one of more than 160 that make up the Okinawa prefecture – an archipelago trailing like a strand of pearls towards Taiwan. Some of the islands are inhabited, simply a slip of untouched white sand lapped by azure seas, while others are scattered with luxury resorts at the edge of pristine dive sites. Others, still, like the far-flung Yaeyama Islands, are thick with jungle, lush mangrove swamps, rivers and waterfalls.

Okinawa is Japan's very own tropical paradise
Okinawa is Japan's very own tropical paradise.

It’s easy for Aussie drivers to get around

Forget about rattling around in ancient buses and taxis – the roads are left-hand drive (like Australia and New Zealand) and most rental cars are fitted with GPS systems. On the larger islands, where attractions are spread out and bus services are intermittent, a hire car is the best way to explore. It’s just as easy to island hop, with regular ferry services connecting the three main islands of Okinawa, Miyako and Ishigaki to smaller neighbouring islands.

Okinawa was not always part of Japan

Until Okinawa’s collapse to Japan in 1609, the independent Ryukyu Kingdom governed the islands. You can get an insight into its imperial past at Shuri Castle near capital Naha or at matsuri festivals like Naha Great Tug-of-War Festival held in October. More recently, it was the site of one of the bloodiest campaigns of World War II – and to this day, US Forces (Japan), still have a large presence on the islands.

Learn about Japanese history by visiting the iconic Shuri Castle
Learn about Japanese history by visiting the iconic Shuri Castle.

Not everyone drinks sake

The favoured local drink is awamori – which, like sake, contains rice as its main ingredient but that’s where the similarities end. Distilled, not brewed, the local spirit packs a punch, with an alcoholic content ranging from 30 to 43 per cent. Awamori distilleries are scattered throughout the islands, including three on Okinawa, where you can take a tour to learn how the drink is made, then sample a glass or three. Proceed with caution.

The local cuisine does not revolve around sushi

Okinawa is a melting pot of cultures and cuisines. You’re less likely to find sushi on the menu and more likely to find pork, thanks to the Chinese influence. You’ll find soba noodles made with wheat, not buckwheat, and taco rice, credited to the Americans. Famed as an area where people live longer than average, a diet rich in tofu, seaweed and yam is said to contribute to the longevity of the locals. Don’t miss the sea grapes – a local seaweed delicacy that pops in the mouth – or the congee-style porridge served at breakfast.

You can still do water sports in winter

While the rest of Japan shivers through winter, it can still reach a tropical 20°C here in the colder months. The ocean temperatures are just as inviting and visibility in the water is crystal clear. Despite being the off-season – and the mad looks you’ll get from rugged up locals – it is possible to hire snorkel gear and find dive tour operators who’ll take you out in the ocean (weather permitting). The bonus? You won’t battle the holiday crowds.

Okinawa is home to an immense reef system.
Okinawa is home to an immense reef system.

Okinawa is home to world-class star-gazing

With comparisons to Hawaii, you’d be forgiven for picturing an endless coastline of sprawling resorts. But last year, Iriomote-Ishigaki National Park, located in the Yaeyama Islands, was named an International Dark Sky Park, recognised for its lack of man-made light pollution. Ishigaki is one of the best places in the world to star gaze – with up to 84 constellations visible on a clear night.

Cherry blossom season starts here

Darker in colour than the mainland flowers, the first cherry blossoms unfurl their petals mid January on Okinawa – several months ahead of Tokyo and Kyoto. Witness the spectacle at Mount Yae and Nakijin Castle, where, for two weeks each year, the hillside is transformed into a riot of pink blooms.

The stunning cherry blossoms attract visitors every year.
The stunning cherry blossoms attract visitors every year.

It is the birthplace of karate

It might have spread like wildfire but karate was practised here long before being annexed by Japan in 1879 – and the island remains the best place to learn the combat art. At Naha’s Karate Kaikan opens in new window, you can watch tournaments as athletes gear up for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

It’s home to Japan’s best dive sites

Okinawa, where you’ll find Japan’s largest reef, delivers spectacular diving throughout the islands. You can spot everything from manta rays in Ishigaki to underwater caves near Miyako and hammerhead sharks off Yonaguni. Even beginners can get in on the action on a beach dive off Okinawa Island.