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Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Okinawa

The mention of Japan rarely conjures images of coral-fringed islands bathed in sunshine and lapped by turquoise waters. Okinawa, a prefecture comprising more than 150 islands, reveals a Japan that many didn’t know existed: World War II relics sit on tropical beaches; sushi is served alongside exotic fruit; and the locals operate at a pace far more relaxed than Tokyo and Kyoto. International and domestic flights land in Naha, the prefecture’s modern capital; while Okinawa-hontō, the busy main island of the archipelago, is the principal starting point for sightseeing tours that showcase the region's beauty. Popular cruises cover the islands of Iriomote, Yubu, Taketomi, and Kohama, characterized by powdery white sand beaches, roaming water buffalo, and fauna-rich mangroves. The Ishigaki and Miyakojima islands—far closer to Taiwan and the Philippines than anywhere in Japan—are an ideal (and literal) jumping off point for scuba diving and snorkeling. Diving courses tailored to all abilities allow you to explore caves and observe weird and wonderful marine species, including anemones, sharks, and damselfish; while off-road motorbike tours are great ways for thrill seekers to explore the islands. Family-friendly Okinawa attractions include the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, Okinawa World, and Ryuku Mura, while top draws for history buffs are Nakihim Castle, Shuri Castle, and the Himeyuri Peace Museum—all best booked in advance to ensure tickets and easy entry.
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Iriomote Island
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Beautiful Iriomote Island is one of the most remote spots in the Japanese archipelago. Not a lot has changed on the island in recent decades, and 90 percent of it remains blanketed in jungle and mangrove forest, the abode of the rare Iriomote wildcat. While the interior of the island, the second largest of the Okinawa Islands, can be explored via kayak, riverboat or trek, the main draw for most of the island’s visitors are the colorful reefs covered in virgin coral that ring the island.

Snorkelers and divers who explore beneath the surface near Iriomote might spot dolphins and manta rays, who school along the aptly named Manta Way during the spring and summer.

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Okinawa World
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To some, the four areas of Okinawa World may look just like theme parks, but even locals know this popular destination offers seasoned travelers immediate access to almost all of Okinawa’s culture, history and ecology in one easy spot.

Visitors can spend the day exploring the dark and narrow passes of the impressive Gyokusendo Caves, which span some five kilometers underground. Kingdom Village, a vibrant replica of a traditional community grants travelers a passport to rural settlements and ancient times. And outdoor enthusiasts will love wandering the trails of Gangalanotani, where untouched forests and archeological sites get visitors up close with prehistoric times. And while not for the faint of heart, Habu Museum Park gets hearts racing with its famous exhibit of poisonous snakes and other indigenous creepy crawlies.

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Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium
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The expansive collection of underwater wildlife living in the Churaumi Aquarium includes some 740 species and 21,000 animals—like three massive whale sharks—that represent much of the marine life indigenous to the oceans surrounding Okinawa.

Travelers can explore the dark hallways lined with illuminated tanks and uncover mysteries hidden far beneath the surface of the sea. From coral reefs to the famous black current, known by locals as the Kuroshio, visitors can get up close with all the animals that live down below and learn more about what makes Okinawa a unique destination.

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Himeyuri Peace Museum
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The sobering Himeyuri Peace Museum serves as a beautiful homage to the 200-plus teachers and students from two area high schools that were forced into nursing during the Battle of Okinawa. Visitors to this quiet memorial can bear witness to the lives of these brave women as they wind through massive limestone monuments erected in their honor.

Travelers can duck into a darkened cave—typical of the environment where many of the nurses hid to deliver care to the injured, or watch historic films that remind onlookers of the grave atrocities of war. Visitors learn about the lengths these nurses went to heal, despite limited medical equipment through ph words scrolled alongside the names and faces of each of the Himeyuri nurses. Travelers can read their stories and then wander into the well-kept garden to reflect on Okinawa’s history of war and its constant quest for peace.

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Shuri Castle (Shurijo)
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The majestic buildings of Shuri Castle (Shurijo or Shuri-jo), in Naha, Okinawa, were once the home of Ryukyu kings, before the island became part of Japan, and later served as the administrative center of the region. The Shurijo castle’s buildings have been destroyed repeatedly throughout history but were rebuilt in 1992.

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Okinawa City (Okinawa-shi)
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In 1970 more than 5,000 Okinawans retaliated against years of military occupation in what eventually became known as the Koza riot. Four years later, on April 1, the city recovered its independence and embarked on the path to becoming one of the island’s top destinations for both locals and travelers.

Steeped in history, culture, politics and tradition, the streets of Okinawa City (Okinawa-shi) are alive with an electricity and energy that’s practically unmatched. Large shopping centers, international military bases and world-class botanical gardens all exist side-by-side and offer a testament to the diversity of this city’s past and future. Nearby Shuri Castle, popular Daiichi Makishi Public Market and dozens of live karaoke joints make Okinawa a hub of entertainment and history for travelers that’s worth spending a day—maybe even more—exploring.

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Ishigaki Island
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Travelers looking to escape the energy and excitement of Okinawa can find a relaxing respite on the shores of Ishigaki Island. Although this popular destination ranks among the Yaeyama Islands’ most populated centers—the silver shores of Ishigaki are a globetrotter’s delight. Visitors can float across the emerald waters of Kabira Bay aboard glass-bottom boats and wander around Kabira Park promenade where epic views are prove to be more than photoworthy.

Well-kept dressing rooms complete with showers and toilets, shaded areas and shallow waters make Sukuji Beach ideal for families looking to wade through the coast’s crystal clear waters. And travelers without small children will love the uninterrupted views of Uganzaki lighthouse in the far distance. Yonehara’s coral reefs attract both novice and experienced snorkelers who say the close-to-shore aquatic life is some of the best on the island.

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Nakijin Castle (Nakijin-jo)

Built in the 13th century, the remains of Nakijin Castle (Nakijin-jo) are one of Okinawa’s most popular tourist destinations. A mecca of culture, politics, art and architecture, the Nakijin Castle ruins attract travelers, adventurers and history buffs from across the globe. Travelers enter through the restored gates and emerge into the gusuku, which pours into the Ushimi Riding Field. During ancient times, war horses trained on this expansive green before heading off to battle.

The Umiya Court, near the Main Hall, North Hall and South Hall, was once used for ceremonial celebrations and royal gatherings. Travelers can stare out over ocean views from Uchibaru (the holiest place on the castle grounds), while would-be anthropologists venture through the Nakijin Hamlet and Shijimajokaku Ward, where archeological excavations have uncovered artifacts that point to a rich and diverse cultural past.

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Miyakojima

The picturesque beaches of Miyakojima are among the most popular places to relax, rejuvenate and unwind. Incredible snorkeling, crystal clear waters and long stretches of underwater coral reefs attract divers from across the globe. And Miyakojima’s tropical climate makes it ideal to visit almost any time of year.

Located about 300 kilometers south of Okinawa’s main island, beaches like Maehama and Sunayama rank high among Miyakojima’s most visited destinations. But its vast sugar cane fields offer a scenic escape from some of the region’s more populated islands and sites like the Tuyumya Grave and Tropical Botanical Garden offer beach-coming travelers opportunities to explore further from the shores, too.

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Ryukyu Mura

A trip to Ryukyu Mura may not be as authentic an experience as a visit to Okinawa’s rural hillside villages, but this popular destination still provides travelers with a taste of the region’s more traditional lifestyle and culture. Visitors can wander through examples of old school mountain housing, watch dance and theater performances and sample a variety of home-cooked local foods.

Traditional artisans offer hands-on workshops for travelers interested in learning the art of pottery making, cloth-dying, weaving or cooking. These small group classes provide interested guests with the opportunity to learn more about the craft and culture of the region, and even create some souvenirs they’ll be happy to take home.

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More Things to Do in Okinawa

Hatoma Island (Hatoma Jima)

Hatoma Island (Hatoma Jima)

The tiny island of Hatoma is barely a kilometer wide and home to just 50 residents. But with three full-service hotels, long stretches of white sandy beach, crystal blue waters and classic tropical island views, Hatoma is a gem of a destination for travelers looking to escape.

Visitors can relax into the cool shade of Hatoma’s towering palm trees, snorkel in the shallow clear waters or explore the picturesque island on foot. Giant banyan trees in the northern part of the island and a tiny lighthouse are among the most popular attractions.

Travelers should be aware that with only a handful of outdoor lights, Hatoma can be difficult to navigate in the dark. Those hoping to catch one of Hatoma’s spectacular sunsets should be sure to carry a flashlight.

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Yubu Island (Yubujima)

Yubu Island (Yubujima)

While the pebble beaches of Yubu Island (Yubujima or Yubu-jima in Japanese) may not be ideal for traditional sunbathing, this hidden paradise offers travelers a uniquely authentic island experience that is not to be missed. Visitors can explore the land aboard old-school ox carts and navigate the shallow waters, crystal clear fjords and lush foliage with the help of a local guide and his powerful water buffalo.

In addition to Yubu’s untouched shores, visitors can explore picturesque walking trails and well-manicured botanical gardens, all while experiencing the old-world wonder that lies just beyond scenic Okinawa.

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Kondoi Beach

Kondoi Beach

Stationed on the west coast of Taketomi Island, Kondoi Beach offers travelers unlimited access to vast turquoise waters and perfect white sandy shores. Kondoi is home to some of the best snorkeling in the area, too—but visitors say it all comes at a price. Travelers looking to unwind on the shores of Kondoi should be ready to shell out 1500 yen per day for access to snorkels, masks and beach umbrellas. And while tourists say the beach is quiet, peaceful and perfect for catching sunsets, most agree that greater Okinawa offers other equally beautiful options at more budget-friendly prices.

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Kohama Island (Kohama-jima)

Kohama Island (Kohama-jima)

Rolling hills and uninterrupted views set Kohama Island (Kohama-jima) apart from others in the Yaeyama archipelago. Travelers can wander grassy passes and shaded trails to two of the island’s most popular lookouts—Chura san’s Point and Ufudake. Locals say Chura san offers some of the best views in the region, but travelers agree that the view from atop Ufudake, where the whole of Kohama can be seen, is equally incredible.

Just like other nearby islands, Kohama is home to some beautiful beaches, including a long stretch of sandy shores called Haimurubushi. Visitors love that its clear waters are protected by jellyfish nets, but avid snorkelers say this means underwater wildlife leaves something to be desired. Still, wet and wild visitors can rent masks and jet skis — or opt to chill out on the shores in comfortable chairs under the shade of giant umbrellas.

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Taketomi Island (Taketomi-jima)

Taketomi Island (Taketomi-jima)

Located just southwest of Ishigaki in the Okinawa Islands, Taketomi Island (Taketomi-jima or, less commonly, Taketomijima) is at once convenient yet remote. Quiet and charming, the small island has no cars and no chain convenience stores, and the population of only a few hundred still live in traditional coral-walled houses with red-clay tile roofs. Visitors wanting to get the full cultural experience can tour the village on a cart pulled by water buffalo, guided by a local who’ll tell folk takes to the sounds of a local instrument.

The island’s beaches also make it worth a visit. Kondoi Beach on the western shore offers beach facilities with white sand and beautiful teal water. Kaijihama Beach on the southwestern coast and Aiyauhama Beach on the eastern coast are both notable for their star-shaped sand formed by the shells of crustaceans.

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Urauchi River (Urauchi-gawa)

Urauchi River (Urauchi-gawa)

The Urauchi River, the longest river in Okinawa Prefecture, flows for 24 miles (39 kilometers) through the heart of Iriomote Island’s dense mangroves and subtropical forest, and cascading down two waterfalls, Kanpiuree and Maryudo, along the way.

The most popular way to experience the spectacular scenery along the Urauchi River is on a river cruise. These popular excursions depart frequently throughout the day from the Urauchibashi bus stop and take visitors along a 5-mile (8-kilometer) segment of the river to Gunkan-iwa Rock. From there, it’s possible to trek for 30 minutes through the jungle to a viewing platform overlooking Maryudo Falls.

Alternatively, visitors can rent canoes and paddle their way along the Urauchi River, or take a guided canoe tour with motorized boat transfer upriver.

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Southeast Botanical Gardens

Southeast Botanical Gardens

Okinawa’s Southeast Botanical Gardens encompasses more than 100 acres (40 hectares) with 30,000 plant specimens representing 1,300 species. Thanks to Okinawa’s subtropical climate, visitors can see plants and flowers from around the world that won’t grow anywhere else in Japan.

The gardens are divided into two main zones. Closest to the entrance are the botanical gardens, while further on lies a much larger water garden comprising a series of ponds surrounded by wooded hills. For an extra fee, a guided tram ferries visitors around the park and offers a good overview of what you might want to explore on your own later.

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