The ultimate guide to island-hopping in Okinawa
Whether you’re into nature walks or snorkelling, these are the best islands to head to in the Japanese archipelago.
- January 2020
The southern prefecture of Okinawa is worlds apart from the rest of Japan. Spread over 1,000km across the East China Sea, the archipelago is known for its balmy weather, pristine white-sand beaches and distinctive Ryūkyūan cuisine — all of which you’d be hard-pressed to find on the Japanese mainland.
Thanks to its lush and diverse geography, one of the best things to do in Okinawa is island-hopping, especially during spring (March to early May) and autumn (late September to December), when the weather is at its best. But with over 100 islands to explore, where do you begin? Read on for 12 of the best islands to visit in Okinawa.
1. For city life: Okinawa Main Island
Otherwise known as Okinawa Hontō, this is the largest and most populous island in the prefecture. It’s also where most visitors begin their Okinawan adventure as it’s home to Naha Airport, which serves numerous regional and international airlines (Jetstar Asia is the only airline to fly direct from Singapore to Okinawa).
To immerse yourself in the heart of the action, head to Naha City, which is the capital of the prefecture. Here, you’ll find buzzing Kokusai Dori, the city’s main thoroughfare. Sample local dishes such as chanpurū (a stir-fry dish) at one of the many restaurants lining the street; then, pick up some snacks and souvenirs at the nearby Makishi Public Market. Do also check out Tsuboya district, the birthplace of its namesake pottery.
READ MORE: 5 hidden gems near Kokusai Dori
2. For sacred sites: Kudaka Island
There’s an air of mystique on Kudaka Island, which is dubbed the Island of the Gods. On its north-eastern tip, you’ll discover the extremely picturesque Cape Kaberu — legend has it this is where the Ryūkyūan goddess Amamikiyo first descended from the skies. It’s said that the goddess went on to live in Fubo Utaki, a small forest that is considered to be the sacred heart of the island. Even today, the forest remains off-limits to men.
3. For diving: Miyako Islands
The Miyako Islands are a diver’s delight, thanks to their intriguing underwater topography. The largest, Miyako Island, features the popular dive site of Mini Grotto, which has numerous colossal boulders and tunnels to explore. There’s also Hon Drop, a sheer slope that’s home to critters such as the giant trevally and the leaf scorpion fish. Cross the bridge to neighbouring Ikema Island to access Yabiji — it’s the largest cluster of coral reefs in Japan, with over 300 species of hard coral.
How to get there: From Naha Airport on Okinawa Main Island, take a 45-minute domestic flight to Miyako Airport.
4. For snorkelling: Tokashiki Island
With their crystal-clear waters, the Kerama Islands are great for snorkelling. We’d recommend the largest, Tokashiki Island, which has several beaches that are especially conducive for glimpsing marine life. The waters of Aharen Beach are replete with butterflyfish, damselfish and clownfish, which can often be found playing hide-and-seek among the coral.
5. For hiking: Ishigaki Island
The largest of the Yaeyama Islands, Ishigaki Island is characterised by hilly terrain, making it ideal for hiking. Intrepid explorers should head straight for the 526m Mount Omoto, which is the tallest mountain in Okinawa. It’ll take you around 90 minutes to reach the summit, and you’ll pass a scenic waterfall along the way. For something a little less strenuous, take a stroll amid the verdant Yonehara Palm Tree Groves, which features various walking trails.
How to get there: From Naha Airport on Okinawa Main Island, take a one-hour domestic flight to New Ishigaki Airport.
6. For the beach: Hateruma Island
There’s no shortage of beautiful beaches in Okinawa, but one of the best can be found on Hateruma Island. Part of the Yaeyama Islands, it is the southernmost inhabited island in Japan. Here, you’ll find pristine Nishihama Beach, which was named the World’s Best Beach at TripAdvisor’s Travellers’ Choice Awards 2017. It certainly deserves that title, with its powdery white sands and gin-clear waters.
How to get there: From Naha Airport on Okinawa Main Island, take a one-hour domestic flight to New Ishigaki Airport. Then, hop on the fast ferry (around 60-70 minutes) from Ishigaki Port to Hateruma Island.
7. For a taste of tradition: Taketomi Island
Also part of the Yaeyama Islands, Taketomi Island is best known for its traditional Ryūkyū village, which is remarkably well-preserved. Admire its historical houses, which are topped with red-tiled roofs, adorned with shisa statues, and encircled by stone walls. The island is fairly compact, and can be easily explored on foot within a single afternoon.
8. For cultural festivals: Izena Island
If you’re planning to visit Okinawa in the summer, time your trip to coincide with Unnaa, a traditional harvest festival that takes place on Izena Island sometime between late July and early August every year. The festival’s main highlight is a tug-of-war, which sees each village being divided into two teams; visitors are entirely welcome to participate as well. Other events include sumo wrestling competitions and sunai (where opponents try to knock each other off a platform).How to get there: From Unten Port on Okinawa Main Island, take a 55-minute ferry ride to Izena Island. There are two ferries per day.
READ MORE: Okinawa’s best luxury hotels
9. For lakes and caves: Minami-Daito Island
There are over 100 limestone caves on Minami-Daito Island, the largest of which is Hoshino Cave. The enormous space, which measures around 300m2, is filled with glittering stalactites of varying shapes and sizes. Once you’re back above ground, check out one of the numerous lakes on the island, such as scenic Ōike, a karst pond fringed by greenery.
How to get there: From Naha Airport on Okinawa Main Island, take a 65-minute flight to Minami-Daito Island.
10. For wildlife spotting: Iriomote Island
The second-largest island in Okinawa Prefecture, Iriomote Island (part of the Yaeyama Islands) is renowned for its natural beauty — in fact, around 90% of its surface is covered by virgin forests and mangrove swamps. These play host to diverse wildlife: try to spot the endangered yananeko, a subspecies of leopard cat that is endemic to the island, and watch out for the venomous habu snake. You can also go kayaking or hop on a cruise to explore the island’s waterways.
How to get there: From Naha Airport on Okinawa Main Island, take a one-hour domestic flight to New Ishigaki Airport. Then, hop on either a high-speed boat or a ferry from Ishigaki Port to Iriomote Island; the ride should take around 35 and 40 minutes respectively.
11. For whale-watching: Zamami Island
Whale-watching is a hugely popular activity on Zamami Island, which is part of the Kerama Islands. From January to early April every year, humpback whales migrate thousands of miles from the Bering Sea to the warmer waters of Okinawa to breed. Glimpse the gentle giants on a half-day whale-watching tour; boats depart from Zamami Port in the morning and afternoon.
How to get there: From Tomari Port on Okinawa Main Island, take the high-speed ferry (around 50 minutes) to Zamami Island. There are usually two to three ferries per day. Note that during winter months, the ferries depart earlier due to the rougher seas.
12. For botany: Ie Island
Ie Island is often called “Flower Island”, and for good reason: blossoms are in abundance here. Pay a visit to the Hibiscus Garden, which is home to over 1,000 colourful varieties of the eponymous flower. Every spring, the island also hosts the annual Ie Island Lily Festival, where you’ll get to see over one million Easter lilies – as well as several other varieties — in full bloom.