All you need to know about the Japanese archipelago Okinawa

Known as the “Hawaii of Japan”, Okinawa has amazing star-gazing, diving, a unique cuisine and yes, cherry blossoms too. Whatever misconceptions you might have had about this prefecture, we set the record straight.

Okinawa's main island features white sand and azure blue sea.
  • Belinda Luksic
  • December 2019

Most people know about the Japanese capital of Tokyo and perhaps a little about Osaka and Kyoto – but beyond that much of this interesting country remains a mystery to travellers. Here are seven of the most commonly believed myths about Okinawa Prefecture in Japan.

Okinawa is one island

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.

Green islands surrounded by water.
With over 160 islands to choose from, Okinawa is a dream destination for beach lovers.

It's hard 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.

Everyone in Okinawa 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.

A celebratory toast with Japanese 'Awamori' alcohol in Okinawa.
Okinawa's local drink awamori - it certainly packs a punch.

Winter is a no-go in Okinawa

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.

The only food in Okinawa is 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.

A plate of taco rice with avocados and tomatoes.
Taco rice is one of the American-influenced dishes that is now an Okinawa staple.

Bright lights and big resorts abound in Okinawa

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.

Okinawa was 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 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.

A huge crowd gathers at the Naha Tug of War Festival in Okinawa, Japan.
Events like the Naha Tug of War festival offer insight into Okinawa's history.

And three more cool facts

Did you know Okinawa is the birthplace of karate, home to great diving and also the first cherry blossoms of the season?

Darker in colour than the mainland flowers, the cherry blossoms here unfurl their petals mid-January – 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.

You’ll also find Japan’s largest reef in the prefecture, and Okinawa is home to the country’s best dive sites with spectacular diving available 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.

A scuba diver underwater.
Okinawa boasts some of Japan's best diving spots.

Interestingly, Okinawa is where karate comes from. It might have spread like wildfire throughout the world but the sport was practised here long before being annexed by mainland Japan in 1879 – and it remains the best place to learn the combat art. At Okinawa Karate Kaikan, you can watch tournaments as athletes gear up for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.