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Travel Guide Asia Japan Kyushu Ryukyu Islands Okinawa

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Introduction

Chinen Peninsula, Okinawa

Chinen Peninsula, Okinawa

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Okinawa, a prefecture within the Ryukyu Islands, is the tropical paradise of Japan. Located a mere 2.5 to 3.5-hour flight from Osaka and Tokyo, Okinawa is visited by many Japanese people on vacation, school children on their school trips and visitors to Japan. Okinawa has a tropical climate with temperatures that rarely fall below 15 °C in the winter. The waters near Okinawa provide plenty of opportunities to swim, view sea life and coral reefs. There are many water sports available in Okinawa with snorkeling and scuba diving being some of the most popular.

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Brief History

Okinawa was an independent kingdom ruled by the Ryukyu kings. In the 15th and 16th centuries it was a major trading partner of China, Japan and many Southeast Asian countries. In the 17th century, the Ryukyu Islands were attacked and surrendered to the Satsuma clan from Kyushu acting on behalf of the Japanese Shogun. However, they still maintained their sovereignty and were able to continue their trade with the Chinese. This exposure to the Japanese culture and Chinese culture had a dramatic affect on the Ryukyu people. This can be seen in the design of their temples, which incorporate both Japanese and Chinese architecture and spirituality.

Okinawa was completely annexed and made a prefecture by the Japanese government in 1872. After being annexed the Japanese government brought in new policies based on western models and required all public education to be taught in standard Japanese as a way of assimilating the Ryukyu people into Japan.

During WWII, the Battle of Okinawa was one of the largest of the war and the only land battle on Japanese soil. It is estimated that this battle resulted in the loss of 100,000 military personnel and over 150,000 civilians, more than one third of the total population of Okinawa. [1]. The Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum was built to remember the tragedies of this battle.

After WWII, Okinawa was occupied by the United States and run by an American military government. This occupation led to the creation of many U.S. military bases. Okinawa was returned to the Japanese government in 1972.[2] Part of this agreement allowed the Americans to keep and maintain their military basis in Okinawa.

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Geography

The 161 islands [3] of the Okinawa prefecture span 1,000 kilometres [4], from southern Kyushu to Taiwan. The chain of islands comprising Okinawa is itself divided into three archipelagos:

  • Okinawa Islands - surrounding Okinawa-jima
  • Miyako Islands - surrounding Miyako-jima
  • Yaeyama Islands - surrounding Ishigaki-jima

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Cities

  • Ginowan
  • Ishigaki
  • Itoman
  • Miyakojima
  • Nago
  • Naha (capital)
  • Nanjo
  • Okinawa City (formerly Koza)
  • Tomigusuku
  • Urasoe
  • Uruma

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Sights and Activities

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Events and Festivals

Traditional Festivals

  • Japanese New Year (January 1) - the most important holiday in Japan. Although there are lots of customs and traditions most of them are done in the private. This is mainly a family holiday and Japan can feel very empty as almost everyone goes home. Travelling in Japan in during this time is difficult because everything is shut down.
  • Seijin No Hi (2nd Monday of January) - the coming of age holiday for Japanese women which 20. Traditionally families will buy any young woman how turned 20 in the last year a kimono. On this day almost all Japanese women will ear a kimono.
  • Hin Festival (March 3) - Also known as doll festival the Hin Matsuri festival is meant for young women. In early february families with daughters put dolls in order to make the women happy and healthy later in life. On Girls Day, on March 3, the dolls are put away until next year.
  • Shichi Go San Festival (Novermber 5) - Boys who are 3 and 5, and girls 3 and 7 are taken to a shinto shrine in traditional Japanese dress. The children are brought there to pray for good luck, good health and wealth.

National Holidays

  • Golden Week - Is quite often referred to as the "Japanese Spring Break." It is a combination of many state holidays, including Showa Day, Greenery Day, Children's Day, and Constitution Memorial Day in order to give a full week off. It takes place during the first full week of May. Everyone gets this week off in Japan so it is very bad time to travel because everything is crowded, expensive and most hotels will be full.

Other Events and Festivals

  • O-Bon (Festival of the Dead) - Usually held in August, this festival is observed nationwide in Japan. Buddhist tradition dictates this is the day the dead return to earth to visit their relatives. Lanterns are hung outside homes and offerings to the spirits are made. In the evening, people float the lanterns on the river to help guide the deceased back to their resting place.
  • Hanami and Cherry Blossom Festivals - A tradition all over Japan, Hanami literally means viewing flowers. Picnic under the beautiful flowing trees in any public park during this special season. Usually lasting for only two weeks in March, the sakura (cherry blossom) schedule changes a bit every year, so it’s hard to nail down exactly when to come.

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Weather

Okinawa experiences a subtropical climate, reaching average annual high temperatures of 31 °C in July and August with lows around 26 °C, and highs of around 19-21 °C and lows of 14-16 °C from December to March. [5]. Precipitation starts to rise in April with a peak in August when there is about 250 mm of rain. Rainfall is lowest in December and January with around 100 mm.

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Getting There

By Plane

Naha Airport (OKA) is the main gateway to Okinawa. Destinations include all of the major Japanese cities and international destinations include Seoul Incheon International Airport, Taichung, Kaohsiung, Taipei, Hong Kong International Airport and Shanghai Pudong International Airport.

To/from the airport

  • Rail: The Okinawa Monorail carries passengers from the airport station to the centre of Naha, and to the terminal at Shuri Station, which is closest to Shuri Castle.
  • Bus: Bus service is available to many parts of Okinawa Island.
  • Car: taxis and rental cars are widely available, and there are many parking places available, both for short-term as well as long-term parking.

By Boat

International
The weekly ferries between Keelung and Kaohsiung in Taiwan and Ishigaki and Miyako in the Okinawa Prefecture have been suspended since 2008. The trip took about 18 hours and boats left Taiwan on Mondays and Okinawa on Thursdays or Fridays. There is talk of new ferries between Japan (either Okinawa or 'mainland' Japan) and Taiwan, but up until now (October 2009) there is no ferry.

Domestic
Ferries connect Naha with a number of ports on Kyushu and Honshu, including Tokyo, Nagoya, Fukuoka, Kobe, Osaka and Kagoshima. A one way trip from Tokyo to Naha takes around 44 hours and is only one ferry per week. From Kagoshima on the southern tip of Kyushu, ferries depart for Naha every day though and this is probably the better option if you want to go to Okinawa by ferry as it takes about 25 hours. Check the Japan Ferry Travel Guide for maps, routes, schedules and prices.

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Getting Around

By Plane

Flights between the islands are mostly handled by Japan Transocean Air (JTA) and its subsidiary Ryukyu Air Commuter (RAC), both owned by JAL. ANA's subsidiary Air Nippon (ANK) also has a limited network radiating out from Naha. If you plan on traveling extensively in the region by plane, consider JTA's Okinawa Island Pass, which allows two to five flights for ¥9000 each.

By Car

Probably more so than anywhere else in Japan, the trainless main island of Okinawa is a car culture, which makes car rental an attractive option for longer stays. Be prepared to drive on the left side of the road and to show your International Drivers License. Military and other SOFA personnel may obtain driving privileges via their own installation procedures.

International Drivers Licenses are not accepted in Japan, if you are from Switzerland, Germany, France, Belgium, Slovenia, Monaco or Taiwan. Instead, you need an authorised Japanese translation of your national drivers license. The translation is issued in the JAF Office (Japanese Automobile Foundation) in 1-48-7 Maeda Urasoe-shi. This took approximately one hour in January 2016. The costs for the translation are ¥3,000.

By Bus

Most islands of interest in Okinawa have at least a rudimentary bus network, although schedules may be sparse and prices fairly high (eg. over ¥2000 to cross the main island). Times and routes (usually in both English and Japanese) are indicated at each bus stop and at the various bus terminals. Prices outside of Naha are based on distance travel and are indicated in the front of the bus as it moves from sector to sector (your ticket, that you take as you enter the bus, has a sector number on it). There is a changer for 1000 yen bills and coins at the front of the bus. Keep your ticket until you leave the bus. You pay the fare on alighting and it might be, that the bus driver wants to see your ticket with the sector number.

By Boat

There are dense webs of ferry links between nearby islands, but only infrequent cargo boats ply lengthier routes like Naha-Ishigaki. If traveling by boat in late summer, note that the area around Okinawa is known as Typhoon Alley for a reason.

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Eat

Okinawan cuisine is distinctly different from that of mainland Japan. Unlike the simplicity of classical Japanese food, which tries to highlight individual ingredients, Okinawa is a champurū (mixed) cuisine, where lots of ingredients can be used in a single dish to create complex, balanced flavors -- aptly enough, the very word seems to originate from the Malay campur. Thanks to its notable Taiwanese influence, Okinawans too proudly proclaim that they use every part of the pig except the squeal and pork makes an appearance in almost every dish, including bits like ears, trotters and blood which are generally disdained by the Japanese. Even Spam has a distinct following.

Other Okinawan ingredients include vegetables rarely seen on the Japanese mainland such as bitter melon (ゴーヤー gōyā) and purple yam (紫芋 murasaki-imo). Local seaweeds like the gloopy mozuku (モズク), often served in vinegar or mixed into porridge, or fluffy green āsa (アーサ), hiding in soups, often get credit for Okinawans' life expectancy, the longest in the world. Okinawan tropical fruits including mango, papaya, pineapple, dragonfruit and the sour lime-like calamansi (シークァーサー shīkwāsā) are delicious when in season. Dark cane sugar (黒砂糖 kurosatō) is also a popular snack, eaten both as is and made into a vast variety of candies and pastries.

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Drink

The local brew of choice is awamori (泡盛), a notoriously strong rice liquor that can contain up to 60% alcohol, although 30-40% is more common. Unlike Japanese shochu, which is usually prepared from potatoes or barley, awamori is brewed using imported Thai jasmine rice since during the days of the Ryukyu Kingdom, short-grain rice could not be brought in from the main islands. It's most commonly drunk on the rocks or neat.

Awamori keeps well, and when stored more than three years is known as kūsu (古酒, also read koshu in standard Japanese). If the label indicates a specific age, it's 100% at least that old; however, kūsu without a given age is usually a blend of 50% 3-year-old and 50% new awamori.

If awamori is a bit too strong for your taste, try awamori umeshu (泡盛梅酒), a delectable sweet liquor made by infusing Japanese ume plums in awamori and cane sugar. Lemon and coffee-flavored versions of awamori are also available.

Okinawa's local beer Orion is a safer alternative, at least in small quantities. Most larger islands also have their own microbreweries.

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Sleep

Broadly speaking, accommodation on Okinawa can be divided into two brackets: cheap basic lodges, and expensive fancy resorts. Another option is sleeping in campsites.

Okinawa has a multitude of cheap minshuku-type lodges geared towards poor surfers and divers, and unlike the mainland many offer or even specialize in bed-only (素泊まり sudomari) stays with no meals included. The very cheapest dorm-type places can go for less than ¥2,000, although you'll usually be looking at a minimum of ¥3,000 for your own room and around ¥5,000 if you want two meals. Watch out for hidden charges for things like air-con, fridge rental or even using the shower.

In Naha you can easily find dirt-cheap places starting from ¥1,000 per night.

There are many campsites around Okinawa, some on nice beaches. They offer cheap accommodation if you have your own tent and sleeping bag (and mat) for ¥500-1,000/night. Their facilities are sometimes very poor, they have only cold shower for example (and they even charge you for using it!) and no cooking/cleaning facilities. However they often rent out BBQ sets (¥2,000-3,000) which can make the night unforgettable.

B&B-type pensions are the most common midrange option, although there are some city hotels also. Figure on around ¥10,000/person with two meals.

The other end of the spectrum is Okinawa's host of resorts, usually located on a private beach in some remote corner of the island - which means you'll be stuck eating at the resort's expensive restaurant and using their expensive watersports services. Rack rates for these places tend to be ludicrous (¥20,000+/head/night), but you can usually get steep discounts by buying flight and hotel packages, especially in the low season.

PropertyAddressTypePopularity
Ensuite Hostel Base OkinawaWakasa 1-17-5, Naha CityHostel78
Okinawa Guest House KERAMA3-12-21 Maejima Naha OkinawaHOSTEL74
Hotel Sun Palace Kyuyou2-5-1 kumoji NahaHotel-
Hotel Taira1-14-13 Matsuyama Naha-shiHotel-
Hotel White Beach3-15-5, Maejima Naha cityHotel-
Kashiwaya Guesthouse2-11-22 ukishima-st. matsuo, naha cityHOSTEL-
Okinawa Sora House2-24-15 KumojiGuesthouse83
Osaru-no Oyado (Monkey's Inn)3-23-21, Wakasa Naha CityHOSTEL89
GuestHouse CamCam Okinawa2-20-12 Kumoji Naha-CityHostel-
Guest House Love and Peace3-10, ShiromaeGuesthouse-
Guesthouse Hanahana50-1 Kugai Hirara MiyakojimashiGuesthouse-
Guesthouse Iriwa599 Kabira IshigakiGuesthouse-
Costa del Sol IshigakiTonoshiro 700 IshigakiGuesthouse-
Shell House1-4-8 AsatoHostel80
Yomitan Village Backpackers517-1 no,18 Owan Yomitanson NakagamigunHostel-
Minsyuku AgaihamaAgarihama106-4, YonabaruHOSTEL-
Kumoji-So Hostel3-23-10-6F Kumoji, Naha CityHostel-
Osaru No Oyado Monkey's Inn Itoman413-6,Itoman,Itoman-cityHostel81
Guest House Ryukyu An67 Zakimi, Yomitan-sonGUESTHOUSE-
Okinawa Hostel YANBARU FUKURO205-3 Yabu Nago cityHostel-
Green House Okinawa9-1.2-Chome, Nishi NahaHOSTEL-

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References

  1. 1 Battle of Okinawa, Military History Online - Retrieved on 2008-08-28
  2. 2 Okinawa, Japan, GlobalSecurity.org - Retrieved on 2008-08-28
  3. 3 Background and history, Okinawa.com - Retrieved on 2008-08-28
  4. 4 Okinawa Travel Guide, japan-guide.com - Retrieved on 2008-08-28
  5. 5 Average Weather for Okinawa, weather.com - Retrieved on 2008-08-28

Quick Facts

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Coordinates
  • Latitude: 26.3626
  • Longitude: 127.810013

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This is version 23. Last edited at 13:09 on May 4, 16 by Utrecht. 11 articles link to this page.

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