Okinawa remains a bit of an enigma for many travellers from Europe and North America.
If you're anything like me, you've heard of it, likely associated with World War II but beyond the fact that it's an island in the southern part of Japan, you don't know much about it.
Let's start with the basics before getting to the excellent stuff.
Where is Okinawa?
Okinawa is the southernmost prefecture in Japan. It's ~640 km (400 mi) south of mainland Japan, and about the same distance from China.
It consists of four main islands and smaller island groups. I visited the Kerama Islands which form Kerama Shotō National Park. Altogether there are ~160 islands in Okinawa that stretch out over 1000 km (620 mi).
What is Okinawa Famous For?
Besides the Battle of Okinawa in World War II, the islands are home for ~ 26,000 U.S. military troops. Okinawa is also famous for its centenarians, Having a proportionately high number of people that live past 100. The Ryukyuan, the island's inhabitants, were featured in the book The Blue Zones, a best-selling book about societies that live the longest. I highly recommend the book. There's a lot of research that you can apply to help ensure that you live a long and happy life.
Why Should You Travel to Okinawa?
After my visit, I was blown away. Take a look, and you'll see why Okinawa should be at the top of your list if you're a nature lover, a scuba diver or love water sports.
Naha is the capital city of Okinawa, also the same name for the main island. 90% of the population resides here.
One of the highlights of Okinawa is Shuri Castle. It's a Ryūkyūan Palace that was built somewhere between 1322 - 1429. The exact dates aren't known. It was heavily damaged in the Battle of Okinawa but has been reconstructed and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Unlike castles in Europe that are elaborately furnished, Shuri Castle is sparse. The beauty is in the simplicity. You also get a gorgeous view stretching over Naha to the sea from the observation point. It's worth the few stairs you have to climb to get there.
Culture lovers and shoppers will want to check out Tsuboya Pottery Street where you can see (and purchase) Okinawa pottery. There's also a pottery museum if you want to learn more about the history and the methods used to make it.
I really enjoyed my time at Manko Waterbird and Wetland Centre. It's a mangrove forest with an observation deck and walkways that take you through the trees so you can experience the mangroves up close. It's also an excellent place to look for crabs and bird watch.
From Naha, I took a ferry to Zamami, one of the Kerama Islands. I LOVED this island SO much.
There are several observations points that you can either hike or drive to that provide stunning views over the islands. It's from up here that you see how many kilometers of beaches there are and how crystal clear the water is.
You'll also get a lot of ideas of how you want to spend your next few days, i.e. kayaking to hidden beaches on uninhabited islands only reachable by boat, SUP, or diving. One of my favourite spots was the one from Inazaki Observation Lookout. The Zamami Whale Watching Association uses it to find whales. They're a non-profit eco-friendly organization that works to ensure that the whales will continue to be born here for years to come. I didn't spot any humpback whales unfortunately, but the breathtaking views far exceeded the effort of the 3.5 km walk.
Take a look, and you'll see why I loved Zamami so much.
Also, check out Erik Conover's incredible drone coverage of Zamami Island to see how beautiful the Kerama Islands are.
Whale Watching Off Zamami Island
Each year from January to the end of March the Kerama Islands are a breeding ground for migrating humpback whales who give birth in the warm waters off the coast of Okinawa.
We were told that we had a 100% chance of spotting a whale by the Zamami Whale Watching Association. I was fortunate enough to observe a mother and her calf - an utterly enthralling experience.
Diving in Zamami
The Kerama Islands offer spectacular diving! I only did one dive but saw multiple Anemonefish (clownfish), a reef shark, squid, Nudibranchs and sea snakes. It's one of my favourite first dives that I've ever done. You can read more about diving in the Kerama Islands here.
And the Cats
Besides whales and deer, Zamami is home to a lot of well cared for cats. This one jumped into the lap of my lunch companion and seemed rather annoyed when he got up to leave. I was rather jealous that he'd chosen him rather than myself but anyone who knows cats knows they have their own minds. Interacting with the cats made me miss mine, Fuego, and Coco back at home in Germany.
The village on Aka Island is much smaller than the one on Zamami with just 330 inhabitants. I recommend it for a day trip.
Beaches of Aka
Aka is a great spot to find deserted beaches. In summer you'll find Green turtles, loggerheads and hawksbill turtles emerging from the sea onto the beaches to lay their eggs.
You'll find deer on the Kerama Islands. They're a unique subspecies only found on the Kerama Islands. I spotted three on Aka Island. They're a national protected species in Japan. And get this, they've been seen swimming between islands! Wouldn't that be something to see?
This hilly island offers perhaps one of the best views of the Kerama Islands from its observation points. It was cloudy when I was there, but I can imagine it being spectacular on a clear day.
Tokashiki is also a great place for water sports. I went sea kayaking in the protected waters of a cove. The more adventurous can kayak to other islands and hidden coves, I'm coming back to do this.
I also tried SUP for the very first time. The calm waters were the perfect place to learn and to get my balance. I also learned that if you want me to fall, all you have to do is say Look, sea turtle! It wasn't a false alarm; you can SUP with sea turtles! The water was warm enough to do it in February!
You'll also find cherry blossoms in Okinawa. And while the season is just starting in mainland Japan, on subtropical Okinawa, the season is almost finished - at the end of February.
Where to Eat in Okinawa
I was lucky enough to eat at a couple of very traditional restaurants in Okinawa, the one pictured below is in Naha. You sit on mats on the floor and eat at a low table. I highly recommend you try this experience. Here the menu was only in Japanese, so you'll need either a translator or a sense of adventure.
The market in Naha is also worth a visit. You can pick up local items for a picnic or just browse. It's a great way to get an idea of what local food in Okinawa is like.
It's no secret that Japanese like fish, so much so that they'll even eat it for breakfast. The photo below was our breakfast served at a guest house on Aka Island.
Where to Stay in Okinawa
I stayed at Hotel Rocore Naha for one night. The location was ideal, just around the corner from International Street. It featured an incredible breakfast buffet featuring local specialties like Goya Champuru (a bitter gourd stir fry) and more familiar Western favourites like bacon and eggs.
When exploring the Kerama Islands, I recommend staying on either Zamami and/or Tokashiki. These islands have a variety of restaurants and guest house accommodation to choose from. Not to mention secluded beaches, diving and water sports. Here's a list of accommodations in Okinawa.
I just explored several of Okinawa's many islands. Yaeyama Islands, which my friend Nienke visited also look incredible.