Many Americans probably know Okinawa by association to the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, which was fought on the Ryukyu Islands of the Okinawa Prefecture and was the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific War of World War II. When World War II ended, Okinawa was placed under U.S. administration for 27 years. It wasn’t until 1972, that the U.S. government finally returned the islands to the Japanese. The U.S. still maintains a large military presence in Okinawa, 27,000 military personnel and 22,000 family members are stationed there.
The Okinawa Prefecture of Japan consists of hundreds of islands known as the Ryukyu Islands which span a distance of 620 miles. Okinawa Island is the largest, encompassing 464 sq mi. The inhabited islands are divided into a group of three which include Okinawa Islands (Ie-jima, Kume, Okinawa Island, Kerama Islands), Miyako Islands (Miyako-jima), and Yaeyama Islands (Iriomote, Ishigaki, Yonaguni.) Naha, Okinawa’s capital, is located in the southern part of Okinawa Island. With its warm weather and sandy beaches, Okinawa is often considered the Hawaii of Japan.
During the Ryukyu Kingdom era, which endured from the 15th century to the 19th century, various cultures were integrated into the Okinawan culture. There are traces of Chinese, Thai and Austronesian (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Brunei, Micronesia and Polynesia) influences. Although standard Japanese is almost always used in formal situations, the actual traditional Okinawan language is still used in traditional folk music and dance.
Home to people from over 30 different countries, Okinawa hosts the International Carnival each year bringing together people from all walks of life. The second day of the International Carnival is called Gate 2 Fest. On this day, motorcycle riders from all over the country assemble on Gate 2 Street and ride together in force, showing off their motorcycles and gear.
Situated in the Nakagami District just 17 miles north of Naha is Yomitan village. Fierce fighting took place here during World War II. The Hijagawa River in Yomitan was where the initial landing of the Allied Forces during the Battle of Okinawa took place. Yomitan is mainly an agricultural and crafts village with its economy supported by crops such as chrysanthemums, sugar cane and sweet potatoes. The village attracts many tourists with its beautiful and largely unspoiled beaches as well as its folk arts which include pottery and glass blowing.
Yachimun pottery has existed in Okinawa for over 300 years. It is broken down into two categories: the unglazed Arayaki ware and the glazed Joyaki ware. Once a year, Okinawa’s most famous pottery fair takes place where handmade Yomitan Village shisa, pots, vases, cups, sake jars and more are on display and for sale.
The Okinawan art of glass blowing known as Ryukyu glass is famous and popular with both Japanese and foreigners alike. The origin of Ryukyu glass can be traced back to the Meiji era in Japan. In those days, people used the art of glass blowing to construct glass bottles for medicine and parts for lamps. After WWII, glass craftsmen began to produce glass products for American Soldiers in Okinawa. Today, it is a very important part of Okinawan culture.
Yomitan is also home to multiple UNESCO World Heritage Sites including Zakimi Castle which was constructed between 1416 and 1422. It is in ruins, but the foundations and walls have been restored. Before and during WWII, the castle was used as a gun emplacement by the Japanese. After the war, the U.S. forces utilized the castle as a radar station destroying some of the walls in the process of installing the equipment. There is a small museum next to the parking lot with displays of local art and folk craft. The museum does not focus on the castle in particular, but rather gives a general perspective on the local community, including exhibits on archaeological relics, dwellings, funerary customs and the war.
Sharing the UNESCO designation is another castle located on the Motobu Peninsula of northern Okinawa, the Nakijin Castle. It was constructed during the late 13th century to the beginning of the 15th century. The castle was strategically built on a hill where it was well defended by natural elements such as the river, cliffs and a deep valley. It was the residence of the Ryukyuan Kingdom governor and currently lies in ruins. Nearby is the Nakijin Village History and Culture Center with a small museum displaying items unearthed on the castle grounds, such as Chinese pottery, coins and documents. There are also exhibits about everyday life and culture of Nakijin Village.
Cape Zanpa in Yomitan Village is the first of many spectacular capes that dot the eastern coastline. The Cape Zanpa Lighthouse sits on the corner of the cape on acres of beautifully manicured land. The walking paths around the lighthouse border the China Sea and provide great scenic views. The cape is a popular fishing spot and the rocks along the water are usually crowded with fishermen. A huge Shisa guards the entrance to the Zanpa Misaki Recreation Plaza where you will find a playground, bicycles, restaurants, shops, and barbecue pits.
Nakadomari Beach located on the west side of Okinawa overlooking the East China Sea, is registered as a National Seashore. Here visitors can enjoy para sailing, horseback riding, fishing, scuba diving, snorkeling and surfing. There are stairs carved from rock at Maeda Point, the entrance to the bay, which allow easy access to the water for surfers and divers.
Located in the suburbs of Nago City, just a short drive from the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, is the Kanucha Resort Hotel. Set amidst the sea and surrounding mountains of northern Okinawa, the hotel offers a championship-caliber golf course called the Kanucha Golf Course with majestic views. Given its ideal location, guests at this resort can partake in many different types of water sports and activities including diving, jet skiing, snorkeling, banana boat rides and glass bottom boat excursions to name a few.
In 1975, Okinawa hosted the World’s Exposition at its Ocean Expo Park. Unfortunately, over the years, the park saw a decrease in visitors prompting the construction of the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium in 2002 in an effort to help boost tourism. “Churaumi” in the Okinawan Japanese means beautiful ocean. The aquarium consists of four floors, with tanks containing deep sea creatures, sharks, coral and tropical fish. It is one of only a few aquariums that keeps whale sharks in captivity, and is currently trying to breed them. Over 20 million visitors have walked through its doors since its opening.
Ufuya which translates to “big house” is a great restaurant in the Nago area just south of the Churaumi Aquarium. They do not accept reservations on weekends and tend to get very crowded. The waiting room outside of the restaurant has a water fountain, a wooden swing and a pineapple field which help its waiting patrons pass the time while they wait to be seated.
You will notice the statues of a creature which is a cross between a dog and a lion placed at the entrance of the restaurant. This “Shisa” is a traditional Okinawan decoration typically placed on rooftops of houses and gates to guard against evil.
Located just north of Nago City is Kouri Island , a part of the Nakijin Village. A visitor must cross two bridges to access the island. The first bridge connects the main island of Okinawa with Yagaji Island. The second, the Kouri Big Bridge is Japan’s longest toll free bridge spanning 1.2 miles; connecting Yagaji and Kouri Islands. Once there, travelers can take advantage of the beautiful beach and all it has to offer including swimming, snorkeling, kayaking and diving. Kouri is famous for producing delicious sea urchins, a delicacy in Japan.
Nirai Kanai translated in the Okinawan Japanese means, “closest place to heaven,” and it is the name given to a mythical island where the gods are said to reside. According to Okinawan legend, the gods travel from the island each year to bless their people. An hour south of Nago City is Nanjo city where there is a bridge called the Nirai Kanai Bridge. The view from the bridge is breathtaking. There is an observation spot just above the tunnel that leads to the entrance of the bridge but finding a parking spot can be a challenge.
Japan National Route 58 is an unusual highway that runs along the coast of Okinawa and continues to other islands. It starts at the Meiji Bridge in Naha and ends in Kagoshima. Sections of the highway running from island to island are not connected in any manner other than the name.
Hotel Moon Beach is approximately 60 minutes by car on Route 58 and offers great views of the crescent shaped private, white sand beach known as Moon Beach. The beach extends 160 yards along the water and is often densely populated with beachgoers. There is a designated swimming area, areas for parasols and volleyball nets.
Moritoshi Inaba (Okinawa, Japan), Pietro Scozzari (Okinawa, Japan), Eiji Umezawa (Tokyo, Japan)