Japan City Guides: Okinawa
Okinawa is the southernmost prefecture of Japan. It occupies the southern part of the Nansei (Southwest) chain of islands which stretches over 1,200 km from the southern tip of Kyushu to within 100 km of Taiwan.
Okinawa prefecture consists of around 160 of these islands, 46 inhabited. The prefecture takes its name from the largest and most populous of the three groups of islands that form it, the other two being the Miyako and Yaeyama group. The Okinawa group is centered on the largest island in the prefecture, Okinawa Island; the Miyako group on Miyako Island; and the Yaeyama group on Ishigaki Island.
Lying at roughly the same latitude as Hawaii, Florida, and the Bahamas, Okinawa enjoys similar mild sub-tropical weather. The yearly average temperature is about 24°C (75°F). The highest temperature in the summer is 35°C (August) and in winter never dips below 10°C (50°F) (January).
It rains almost half the days of the year, and the rainy season is usually in May, and lasts about a month. Annual rainfall is 1,800 mm. Humidity is high throughout the year. Okinawa lies in the path of the East Asian Typhoon System, and from July through November may be hit by typhoons and monsoon rains.
Humans are believed to have settled on the Okinawa islands about 4,000 years ago. There was some migration from southern Kyushu to the northernmost islands, but the largest migrations came from Melanesia to the south.
In the 11th century castles began appearing around the islands and all the islands became unified under the Sho Dynasty in the 15th century. Known as the Ryukyu Islands, the 15th and 16th centuries are considered the Golden Age of Okinawan history, when the islands flourished through maritime trade between Southeast Asia, China, Korea, and Japan.
In the early 17th century Japanese from Satsuma invaded and began to exert more control over the islands, though a tributary relationship with China continued to operate. Commodore Perry called in the Ryukyu islands on his way to Shimoda in the 1850s.
In 1879 Japan abolished the Okinawan royalty and formally annexed Okinawa as a Japanese prefecture. Suppression of Okinawan language, customs, and culture followed, and in response to a ban on Okinawans owning weapons they invented the martial art of karate.
New Year Ceremony at Shuri Castle, Naha, Okinawa
Shuri Castle, Naha, Okinawa
In the closing stages of the Pacific theatre of World War II, Okinawa was the site of one of the bloodiest campaigns of the war, with both the American and Japanese militaries suffering heavy losses. Hardest hit though were the Okinawan civilians caught in between, and it is estimated that one third of the Okinawan population died in the campaign, many through suicide 'encouraged' by the Japanese.
Following the war, Okinawa was under the control of the U.S. until 1972 when it reverted to Japanese control. There remains a sizeable American military presence on the islands and continuing tensions between the Okinawan authorities and inhabitants and the American military on one hand and between Okinawans and mainland Japanese politicians who broker the deals that keep a US presence on the islands.
Okinawa's unique culture came about from the diverse influences of the many cultures of those she traded with, although Chinese culture dominated. Many elements of Chinese culture entered Japan through Okinawa, including Dragon Boat Racing, and the Lion Dance.
Okinawan dance is still very popular, incorporating Chinese, Japanese, and South East Asian elements in a lively mix, and is performed all over the islands. Okinawan music is enjoying somewhat of a boom, not only in Japan but globally, and often includes the distinctive sound of the sanshin, a snakeskin-covered string instrument similar to a banjo that was originally introduced from China.
Many traditional crafts including pottery and laquerware are still produced, but Okinawa is most famous for its distinctive woven and dyed fabrics.
Okinawan food also reflects the diversity of cultural influences that have affected it over the centuries. Being islands, seafood dominates, together with sweet potato and dofu as staples. Dofu is Okinawan tofu, is firmer than Japanese tofu, and also saltier, as it is made with seawater.
The preferred meat in Okinawa is pork. Probably the best-known Okinawan food though is goya (bitter melon) which, even though very bitter, is consumed widely and is attributed by many to contribute not only to Okinawans' extremely long lifespan (81.2 years according to 1996 statistics: the longest in the world), but also to their equally long 'health span' (i.e. lack of disease), which also leads the rest of the planet.
Places of interest
Tsuboya Pottery Museum displays the history of Okinawan pottery. Near Makishi monorail station.
Kokusai Dori, (i.e. 'International Street') in downtown Naha is the main shopping area in Naha, and includes many restaurants and clubs as well as souvenir shops and hotels.
Shuri Castle and environs is probably the major tourist site in the Naha area. For hundreds of years this was the royal seat of the Ryukyu dynasty. The area is filled with historic sites, although most are reconstructions, following the widespread destruction of World War II. The castle itself is a unique mix of Chinese, Okinawan, and Japanese styles and is a World Heritage Site.
Tamaudun Royal Mausoleum, a World Heritage site, was built into the rocky hillside in 1501 for an Okinawan king. Nearby is the Okinawa Prefectural Museum, and Shikinaen Garden.
Southern Okinawa was the site of the biggest battles during World War II, and there are many sites commemorating the war including the Himeyuri Monument, Himeyuri Peace Museum, and Mabuni Hill.
Nearby is Okinawa World, a recreation of a traditional Okinawan village with demonstrations of traditional crafts and culture. It also includes Gyokusendo, the longest limestone cave in East Asia, the first 890 meters being open to the public.
Cape Chinen forms the southern tip of Okinawa and is renowned for its reefs and marine environment. The Chinen Marine Leisure Center runs glass-bottomed boat tours as well as trips to a secluded island off the coast for diving, fishing, and swimming.
Northern and Central Okinawa
Fukushuen Chinese Garden, Naha, Okinawa
Beach and sea on Taketomi Island
Ryukyumura Village has examples of seven different styles of traditional Okinawan houses, as well as displays of traditional crafts.
Ocean EXPO Park is the largest theme park in Okinawa and was built for Ocean EXPO in 1975.
Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium boasts the largest acrylic panels in the world and is known for raising mantas and whale sharks in captivity.
Taketomi Island, Okinawa
Access - Getting to Okinawa
Naha, the capital city, on Okinawa Island, is the transportation hub for the islands with short-hop flights to the other Ryukyu islands: Amami Oshima, Ishigaki, Miyako, Kumejima, Yoron, Yonaguni, Minamidaito and Kitadaito.
Frequent direct flights to Naha leave from Tokyo (both Haneda and Narita airports), Osaka, Fukuoka, and Nagoya. Less frequent direct flights leave from many other Japanese cities including Kobe, Sendai, Niigata, Shizuoka, Takamatsu, Hiroshima, Kagoshima, Kumamoto and Nagasaki. There are also flights from Taiwan and other mainland Asian cities. There are direct flights to Miyako Island from Tokyo and Osaka. Flights to Ishigaki Island from Nagoya and Fukuoka go via Naha.
From Naha Airport
From Naha Airport to central Naha there is the choice of bus (20 minutes), taxi or Monorail. Buses #23, #25, #99, #111, #113, #120 & #123.
The Okinawa Monorail (Yui Rail) runs approximately 13km and has 15 stops between Naha Airport and Shuri. (The line will expand 4km to Uranishi in the future). The complete journey takes 27 minutes and costs 290 yen. To Kencho-mae (Prefectural Office) the travel time is only 6 minutes from the airport.
Ferries for Naha leave from Tokyo, Osaka and Kagoshima. Ferries from Kobe, Hakata, Miyazaki and Nagoya are now discontinued. Journey time from Kagoshima is 19 hours, and from Tokyo 44 hours. See our Japan travel section for further details.
Transportation within Okinawa
Regular flights and ferry services connect Naha with the other islands in the prefecture. Other than the recently opened monorail that connects Naha with the airport, there are no trains on Okinawa, so transportation is limited to bus, sight-seeing taxi (English-speaking), and rental car.
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