When most travelers picture Japan, they think about the bustling streets of Tokyo and the bright nightlife of Osaka. The Okinawa prefecture offers a different experience altogether. An island group off the southern coast of Japan’s mainland, Okinawa has a comfortable subtropical climate and a unique culture. Plan carefully, and you’ll see beautiful beaches, amazing aquatic life, and breathtaking landmarks on every day of your journey.
Of course, setting an itinerary can be difficult, especially when you’ve got dozens of islands to choose from. If you’re considering an Okinawa trip, here are a few stops that show off the best of what the prefecture has to offer.
If you’re traveling with family -- or if you simply want an up-close-and-personal view of Okinawa’s sea life -- the Churaumi Aquarium in Motobu is an essential stop. Visit its largest tank, called the Kuroshio Sea, to see manta rays and whale sharks swimming in nearly two million gallons of saltwater. This is one of the only aquariums in the world with whale sharks, and daily feedings give visitors the opportunity to see these wonderful creatures up close (from a safe distance, of course, through a clear acrylic panel).
The aquarium also has a touch pool where visitors can touch shallow-water marine life. Outside the actual aquarium, you can take guided flower tours or explore an expansive arboretum at Ocean Expo Park.
Nakagusuku Castle Ruins
Several months ago, we’d have directed history buffs to Shuri Castle in Naha, which was an important symbol of the Ryukyu Kingdom and a critical piece of Okinawan heritage. Sadly, this popular tourist attraction suffered catastrophic fire damage on October 31, 2019, and will be closed for the foreseeable future.
With that in mind, if you’re hoping to see a historical structure on your trip to Okinawa, your best bet is Nakagusuku Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage site built in the early 15th century. Today, the ruins of the castle stand on the short grass of an empty field, a monument to Okinawa’s storied past. It makes for a nice day trip, as it’s about a 30-minute drive from Naha. You’ll also take a brief walk uphill (with some stairs) to make your way to the castle grounds.
Less than 100 feet from the ruins' walls, you’ll find the Nakagusuku Hotel ruins, which are much more recent but no less intriguing. Construction on the hotel began in the 1970s but stopped suddenly due to construction accidents onsite. The hotel was reportedly built near Buddhist graves and sacred sites, and some locals still believe that the project was cursed. We’re not too superstitious -- but still, we’d take care when traveling near these ruins!
You’ll have no shortage of beaches to choose from when visiting Okinawa, but the white sands of Ishigaki are an especially solid choice.
Head to Kabira Bay to see where black pearls are cultivated. It’s a great place for sightseeing, but swimming isn’t allowed. Glass-bottom boat tours are available, and the nearby Kabira Kannon Temple makes for an interesting stop.
For swimming, snorkeling, and relaxing, try Sukuji Beach, located near Kabira Bay. Here, you’ll get pleasant views of the mountains, though the beach itself sometimes has netted-off areas to protect swimmers from Habu jellyfish. Yonehara Beach is another excellent white-sand beach and an ideal spot for snorkeling.
While you’re enjoying Ishigaki, you might want to budget time for a day trip to Taketomi Island to see a perfectly preserved village from the Ryukyu era. Walk by the traditional single-story houses, and you’ll gain an appreciation for classic Okinawan architecture (while filling up your camera roll in the process).
You can’t rent a car on Taketomi Island, but you can rent bicycles or make the trek on foot -- or, if you really want to dive into history, book a 30-minute water buffalo cart ride. A guide will sing songs and discuss the island’s history (in Japanese) while the water buffalo makes its way through the traditional village.
Taketomi Island also has swimmable beaches, most notably Kondoi Beach, which has beautiful white sands and clear blue waters.
This small island group is about 20 to 25 miles from Naha, and if you’re visiting during winter, you’ll probably want to include a Kerama boat tour on your itinerary. That’s when humpback whales congregate off the coasts of the islands, giving visitors an incredible show.
The Kerama Islands are breathtaking at any time of year, as the crystalline waters create picturesque views of the coral reefs surrounding the land. If you’re interested in snorkeling or scuba, you’ll be in heaven -- and even if you’re not looking to dive into the waters, you’ll have plenty of eye candy to keep you occupied.
This mostly uninhabited island has become popular with tourists in recent years. Take a 20-minute boat trip from Naha to see vibrant corals or to take a quick snorkel in the clear waters.
Most travelers treat Nagannu Island as a day trip, though cottages are available on the island if you decide to stay overnight. All boats to Nagannu are operated by tourism company Tokashiki Co. Ltd., so check out their website for details.
Eating In Okinawa
While sushi remains Japan’s most famous culinary export, Okinawa’s cuisine is much more than tuna rolls and sashimi. The chefs of Okinawa draw from a variety of Japanese, Chinese, Thai, and Western influences, creating unique gastronomic experiences that will delight any traveler.
You could spend your entire vacation exploring Okinawa’s restaurants -- and we wouldn’t blame you. If you’re hoping to sample the best that the islands have to offer, however, these suggestions should get you on the right track.
One more note: As we’ve mentioned in our piece on dining at restaurants in Japan, you’ll be able to enjoy an anxiety-free dining experience by learning a few etiquette rules prior to your trip.
Yakiniku Honpo Shimagyu
Yakiniku is Japanese barbecue, and Yakiniku Honpo Shimagyu in Naha is a prime example (pardon the pun) of this type of eatery. You’ll order bite-sized cuts of raw Wagyu beef, Agu pork, and other meats, then cook them over a small grill.
The restaurant takes great care in seasoning and preparing the meats, and while the menu is affordable, the quality of the food is outstanding. There’s no better way to try authentic Wagyu without spending your entire dining budget. Check out their website (in Japanese) or their TripAdvisor page when planning your visit; typically, travelers can stop by yakiniku-style restaurants without reservations.
If you’re looking for great sushi, look no further than Yume Sushi in Naha, where you can enjoy a lunch selection (sushi gozen) for around $20 USD. Sample bluefish tuna, dotted gizzard shad, crab, and various other delights, served in a relaxing Edo-style atmosphere. Check out the restaurant’s website for reservation information and other details.
Located in Ishigaki, Izakaya Marusa offers a variety of seafood dishes in a traditional Okinawan atmosphere. Fresh fish dishes, braised pork, and awamori (Okinawan liquor) are always available, though the menu changes regularly.
If you’re not sure what to try, omakase (literally, “I’ll leave it up to you") is always an option. If you go that route, be prepared for some sashimi -- raw fish is a delicacy in Okinawa, so if you’ve got strong dietary preferences, you’ll want to make that clear when ordering.
Shopping In Okinawa
While each of the inhabited islands offers its share of shops and boutiques, most travelers will want to shop in Naha, which features several large shopping centers and districts that regularly cater to English-speaking tourists.
Here are a few places to begin your shopping -- starting with one place that nearly every Okinawa visitor will get the opportunity to experience.
Aeon Naha Shopping Center
Located near the Naha airport, Aeon Naha is an enormous shopping center with plenty of English signage and local Okinawan goods.
You’ll find fair prices on clothes, food, souvenirs, and Okinawan liquor, and the variety of shops should keep most visitors entertained for at least a few hours. Given its proximity to the airport and the monorail line, you might want to make this your first stop in Okinawa.
Naha’s main street is centrally located in the capital and features an excellent variety of local shops and national chains. Colorful storefronts and bright neon signs will make you feel like you’re in Tokyo (but with better weather).
Be sure to stop through some of the shopping arcades that branch off from the main street. Daiichi Makishi, a public market with fresh seafood and meats, makes an especially fun side trip, but be respectful -- while most vendors don’t mind if you take photographs of their products, taking photos of Japanese people without their permission is a common faux pas among Western tourists.
Okinawa Outlet Mall Ashibinaa
This large shopping area has well-known stores like Gucci, Marc Jacobs, Birkenstock, and Reebok, and you’ll find some great deals while making your way through the pleasant outdoor campus. The mall has an English website, which provides instructions for visiting from the airport.
Okinawa makes an outstanding destination for a vacation, and while its warm beaches have drawn millions of tourists over the past decade, it’s also a great place to explore Japan’s culture, history, and commerce. The prefecture offers a free multilingual helpline to assist tourists in planning their trips, which can be enormously helpful if you’re apprehensive about your packed itinerary.
Whether you find yourself lounging on the beaches of Ishigaki or trekking to Nakagusuku Castle, you’ll leave the islands with some incredible memories. Catch up on a few Japanese cultural customs before you go, and you’ll enjoy every minute of your experience.