Top 20 Things to Do in Tropical Okinawa
Discover Japan's tropical islands of amaranthine beauty with our guide to the 20 best things to do, see and eat in Okinawa.
Okinawa is the proud owner of some of the world’s most beautiful white sand beaches, crystal clear waters and some of Japan’s friendliest faces. The region of Okinawa is made up of more than 150 islands a whole 400 miles south of mainland Japan. Alongside its beauty, the island is also well-known for the prominent role it played in World War Two when, in 1945, almost 25% of the Okinawan population was wiped out during the gruesome Battle of Okinawa. US troops remained on the island and to this day tensions remain high between soldiers and locals.
Okinawa’s difficult and complex history has undoubtedly contributed to the strength and pride of its people today. The unique personalities of the Okinawans can also be attributed to the archipelago’s distance from Japan which results in a culture somewhat divergent from the Japanese culture we are used to: Okinawans are thought of as the Spaniards of Asia with their laid back and less regulated approach to life. Perhaps thanks to the calming sun and sea, along with a healthy diet of locally-produced fresh fish and vegetables, the people of Okinawa are among the longest living people in the world. With a whole new side of Japan to be discovered, we have come up with a comprehensive list of the best 20 things to do in Okinawa that will give you an insight into all important aspects of its natural beauty, history, food and people.
1 – Snorkelling
One of the many benefits of a trip to the tropical Okinawan islands is undoubtedly the unlimited expanse of warm clear green ocean. While we, of course, recommend daily relaxing dips, you also shouldn’t miss the opportunity to plunge your head beneath the shimmering surface. With the addition of a snorkel you can uncover Okinawa’s thriving life under the sea where you’ll find every tropical fish of every colour and, if you keep your goggle-covered eyes peeled, there’s much more to be seen – turtles, octopi, manta ray and even reef sharks if you’re far enough out.
Snorkels are available to buy at the plentiful seaside shops. However, if you’re trying not to accumulate a suitcaseful of equipment to lug to the beach every day, snorkel hire shops can be found around the majority of beaches.
Many of the islands around Okinawa are home to one of the world’s most biodiverse marine environments: coral reef. There are smaller islands off of mainland Okinawa that are well-known for their spectacular coral reef but that doesn’t mean to say that it’s hard to find from the beaches on the main island. With the seas so clear, good visibility is almost always guaranteed, making this an experience next to none.
With the discovery of the underworld haven of Okinawa’s marine life, there are of course also dangers. Be sure to follow any beach guidelines, beware of strong currents and be prepared to take precautions against any dangerous sea creatures.
2 – Shuri Castle
If you haven’t already heard of Shuri Castle, it’s time to add it to your Okinawa bucket list. Shuri is the former name of Okinawa’s capital, Naha, and the castle still holds great importance across the island to this day. The impressive structure was first constructed around the 14th century and was home to the Ryukyu kings. Burned down and reconstructed on several occasions the castle is no longer of its original design after it was almost wiped out during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945 when the basement was used as Japanese military headquarters.
Shuri castle, along with the Shureimon castle gate and the Tamaudun Mausoleum, the royal tombs found next to the castle, have all been named world heritage sites. Although a reconstruction, the castle remains true to its former self as a beautiful marriage of Japanese and Chinese architecture that rivals all other Japanese castles in the spectacular stakes.
Take a full tour around the castle grounds to appreciate the garden’s interesting array of sculpted hedges, the views over Naha and the centrally located café where you’ll find traditional Ryukyu sweets and tea.
Opening hours: 8.30am – 6.30pm
Price: Adult – ¥820. High school student – ¥660. Elementary/junior high school student – ¥310. Under 5 – free.
3 – Barbeque on the Beach
Nothing quite gives you that summer feeling like the smell of a barbeque while sat watching the sun set over a beautiful white sand beach. There are countless good spots in Okisavourto savor the taste of sizzling meat and experiment with some of the freshest fish going.
Several beaches around Okinawa allow barbecues and some even provide rental equipment. This is the recommended way to go as disposable barbecues can be hard to come by on the islands. The following beaches set you up with everything you need for the perfect barbecue beach experience: Ginowan Tropical Beach, known for its beach parties; Yagajishima Beach; Chatan Sunset Beach, also popular among party-goers; Nishihara Kira Kira Beach; and Araha Beach, frequented by members of the military community. If you have your own equipment, check out Hyakuna Beach for a quiet evening among locals.
Try out a barbecue à la japonaise and replace bread with yakisoba (fried noodles) and toasted onigiri (rice triangles). With a scrumptious assortment of mouth-watering meats and vegetables in the supermarket it’s hard to go wrong.
Price: Around ¥1,500
4 – Swim with Dolphins
Snorkeling is one thing, but if you want the opportunity to swim with one of the most intelligent sea creatures of all, you’ll need the experts to give you a helping hand to swim with dolphins. Whether watching from dry land or practicing your own dolphin flip alongside these graceful fish, Okinawa is the perfect place to have this once in a lifetime experience.
Renaissance Okinawa Resort offers a number of programs to get up close and personal with dolphins, as well as Motobu Genki Village. As these are popular tours among tourists, your best bet for doing this in a small group is to pick a company based on one of the smaller islands, such as Dolphin Fantasy in Ishigakijima.
5 – Tug of War Festival
Thinking back to school sports days isn’t a pleasant experience for all of us. But even the less sporty types could never say no to a tug of war, especially if you imagine it on a much bigger scale. And I’m talking a much bigger scale: Using a two-meter thick, 40-ton rope and 15,000 people on each team!
Okinawa’s National Sports Day takes place on October 10th this year and is one of the main events of the annual Naha Festival. Originating from disputes between the East and West of Naha back in the 17th century, the tradition continues as a good bit of healthy competition providing entertainment for people traveling from far and wide. Make your way to Kokusai dori for 11am when the parade begins ahead of the tug of war.
6 – Ocean Expo Park
The Ocean Expo Park stretches over almost four kilometers of the northwestern coast of mainland Okinawa. The popularity of the park has been increasing in recent years after a dip following its opening in 1976. The abundance of greenery and tropical plantations alongside the several museums and attractions make this location a day out in itself.
The park houses the likes of the Churaumi Aquarium, Oceanic Culture Museum, the Native Okinawan Village open air museum and the Tropical Dream Center. Buses run up and down the stretch of the park at ¥200 a ride if you don’t fancy the walk in the heat.
Park Opening Hours: 8am – 7.30pm (Oct-Feb: 8am – 6pm)
Price: Free entry to park.
Churaumi Aquarium – ¥1850
Tropical Dream Center – ¥690
Oceanic Culture Museum – ¥170
7 – Emerald Beach
The glistening Emerald Beach which lies peacefully between the Ocean Expo Park and Okinawa’s warm glistening waters is most certainly not a hidden attraction but it is a place of extreme beauty all the same.
Come to the beach in mid-July to witness Okinawa’s biggest annual firework display which starts from 8pm. Enter the beach for free and benefit from the number of activities and performances that are laid on, ranging from children’s ball games and watergun battles to music concerts and dance performances.
If you’re looking for a more secret beach, whether on Okinawa or mainland Japan, we have found the very best 13 secret beach destinations in Japan so be sure to hunt them down!
8 – Churaumi Aquarium
Located in the north of the Ocean Expo Park, Churaumi Aquarium proudly holds the title of third largest aquarium in the world. Massive expanses of water cover four floors, treating you to unforgettable close-ups of whale sharks, tropical fish, manta ray and much more. The aquarium’s proximity to the sea aided it in becoming the first aquarium worldwide to successfully develop living coral through the use of natural sunlight and fresh sea water.
In addition to the large viewing tanks which make you feel like you are walking along the ocean bed yourself, a touching pool gives you the chance to shake hands with starfish and sea cucumbers. If that’s not enough, you can make friends with dolphins at one of the daily dolphin shows.
Opening Hours: Oct-Feb – 8.30am – 6.30pm, Mar-Sept 8.30am – 8pm
Price: Adult – ¥1,850. High school student – ¥1,230. Elementary/junior high school student – ¥610. Under 6 years old – free.
9 – Paragliding
Paragliding is one of the best ways to appreciate a beautiful area no matter where you are. However, a birdseye view over the coral reef may be the one that tops them all. If sailing through the sky wasn’t supernatural enough, the unreal array of colors down below will leave you feeling as though you have paraglided into another world.
Although a frightening thought at first, once you have been whizzed up into the sky by the motored paraglide your expert tandem partner will turn the engine off and you can take photos as you sail back down to earth. You can book through sites including Wind Bird Sky Sports School, Veltra and Voyagin.
10 – Yoron Island
Mainland Okinawa doesn’t deprive you of beaches but what if we tell you that there’s something even more spectacular to be found just a four-hour ferry ride away? Yoron Island, with a circumference of just 20km, is a small tropical ring of land boasting incredible beaches and lush landscapes. There is a feeling of pride for the traditional Okinawan culture on Yoron Island: From the open-air museum where you can learn about fishing and sugarcane to the local Sango Matsuri (Coral Festival) consisting of traditional Okinawan dancing and cuisine, which takes place in August.
If you make your way to Yurigahama beach at low tide, you can witness the birth of a new stretch of land, Crystal Beach. Worshiped for its mysterious grains of star-shaped sand, this beach is one of a kind and made even more special by its only occasional appearance. Sadly we’re not the first to make the discovery and the beach’s popularity means stepping foot onto the beach’s unique sand will set you back ¥2,000.
Transport: Ferries run once a day at 7am from Naha to Yoron three days per week.
Price: ¥3,000 return ferry Naha-Yoron.
11 – Scuba Diving
Take your underwater experience that one step further and get all kitted out to try your hand at scuba diving. Although more expensive and time-consuming than a bit of simple snorkeling, the experience is one you won’t regret.
There are plenty of companies offering scuba diving from different parts of the island. Bluefield is based in Kadena Town, on the west central coast of Okinawa, and offer two and three-day packages starting from ¥27,000 (around $260).
Also located centrally, in Chatan, is Dave’s Duck N Dive who provide diving training for beginners and old-hands alike, and you’ll even receive a certificate at the end. Prices range from $350 for a beginner’s course to $1,350 for a two-week master diving course.
A 20-minute drive south of Nago will take you to Piranha Divers Okinawa – a diving school run by a couple who provide courses in English, German and Japanese. The dives will take you to several different beautiful locations with a two-day course starting from ¥49,000 (around $470).
If you plan on getting off the main island of Okinawa, there are many spots that are said to be even more beautiful so don’t hesitate to look around or have a look at the other locations suggested by Diving Paradise Okinawa.
12 – Valley of Gangala
Had enough of Okinawa’s beautiful beaches and blue seas? OK, unlikely, but it’s still worth adding some diversity to your sightseeing. A tour of the Valley of Gangala offers a peak into a hidden world of mysterious meandering paths through shrubbery, Banyan trees and the remains of limestone caves. History looms in the creaking trees with discoveries of artifacts dating back to up to 20,000 years ago.
The 80-minute tour is given in Japanese but every effort is made to make this equally as enjoyable for non-Japanese speakers with an audio guide and friendly, helpful staff. Your tour will be spent walking through the trees and up and down stairs so this is only recommended for active people. After 80 minutes of exploring, you can spend the afternoon relaxing Okinawan-style in the spacious Cave Café at the entrance of the valley. Not only is it a good spot for a coffee break after your tour but it’s also available to rent for hosting parties and events.
Access: 30-min drive from Naha airport
Opening hours: 80-minute tours run from 10am, 12pm, 2pm and 4pm
13 – Goya Champuru
Goya, known as bitter melon in English, has the look and texture of a cucumber and is a staple part of every Okinawan’s diet. The bitter taste is an acquired taste for many but the nutrient-packed vegetable is a must-try on your trip to Okinawa. The goya champuru is a real treat for the tastebuds, combining goya with tofu, pork, egg and a good glug of Japanese flavors including soya, sesame and dashi. Just remember while you’re doubting the unusual taste what we said about the Okinawans and their long lifespans!
14 – Nago Central Park
Nago Central Park is an impressive park to visit at any time of year. Towering over the city of Nago, the park is a good spot for getting a feel of Nago and it’s proximity to its expansive surrounding oceans. The park offers the playground of every child’s dreams with climbing nets, swings and even a zipwire. Have a look at our guide to discovering the whole of Japan with kids.
If you’re visiting Okinawa at the end of January be sure to make your way to Nago Central Park for the annual sakura (cherry blossom) festival. Unlike some of the smaller festivals, Nago Central Park celebrates these beautiful blooming flowers in style with every type of performance and competition under the ever-shining Okinawa sun. As well as the usual exciting food stalls, look out for music concerts, drum and dance performances, costume parades, motorbike exhibitions and even a karaoke competition.
Although December and January are the coolest months on the island with highs of 19°C (66°F) and lows of 13°C (55°F), the scenery remains breathtaking and it is one of the cheapest times to visit the island. Visiting during this off-peak season could leave you benefiting from return plane tickets from Tokyo to Okinawa starting from less than $100. It looks like the tourists have missed a trick here since Okinawa is the only place that you’ll find sakura in Japan in January.
15 – Makishi Market
Just off Kokusai Street in Naha you can find the vibrant Makishi market which sports row upon row of food stalls bursting with every color of fish, fruit and vegetable as well as succulent fresh meats. Locally-sourced produce isn’t hard to come by in Okinawa and Makishi market offers it all at reasonable prices.
A local market is a peek into the life of the locals and the friendly stall holders of Makishi market won’t disappoint with their friendly smiles and Okinawan drawl. If you’re keen to try out all the fresh produce but have nowhere to do your own cooking, don’t miss the surrounding food stalls serving the likes of fresh tempura and goya juice, or make your way up to the second floor which is filled with restaurants serving up all sorts of Okinawan delights. Even better, pick out some fish that takes your fancy from the market and have it cooked by one of the chefs upstairs for a small fee of just ¥500 for a few fish.
Access: 10-minute walk from Okinawa Urban Monorail and Kencho-mae Station.
Opening hours: 8am – 8pm
16 – Murasaki Mura
Historical sites help us to conjure up images of life in the past, but who’s to say it can’t be faked? Step through Murasaki Mura’s striking red entrance gate and you’ll be flung back in time to the days of Okinawa’s Ryukyu Kingdom. Constructed in the 1990s, the replica village was originally created for a film about the Ryukyus and was later transformed into a cultural theme park. Walk through streets reminiscent of the 16th and 17th century while locals help you to unveil your creative side with the plentiful traditional crafts of Okinawa.
Through this window into Okinawan traditional culture, you can have a go at constructing a sanshin (a traditional 3-stringed Okinawan instrument), painting traditional Okinawan pots and designing your own candles and clocks. A single crafting activity comes in at between ¥500 and ¥2,000 so this could be a pricey trip if you’re tempted by several activities but you’ll be able to tick some homemade souvenirs off your list.
Opening hours: 9am – 6.30pm
Price: ¥600 entrance fee, ¥500 – ¥2,000 per activity.
17 – Okinawa Soba
At first glance the Okinawan soba noodles aren’t instantly recognizable as the typical buckwheat noodles you’ll find on mainland Japan. These udon lookalikes are usually served up in a seaweed and pork-flavored broth with thick layers of pork belly or ribs in a dish that almost resembles ramen. The soup is then topped with kamaboko (a little pink fish cake) and shoga (pink pickled ginger).
With an abundance of pigs on the archipelago, pork is a common theme in Okinawan cuisine. While the rest of Japan switches to cold versions of their usual cuisine during the warmer months, the Okinawans keep their soups hot, including the Okinawa soba.
18 – Nago Pineapple Park
The pineapple may seem like an interesting thing to dedicate a whole attraction to, but Okinawa decided its flourishing tropical fruit deserves appreciation. Take a 20-minute ride on a pineapple buggy to discover pineapples in their natural habitat followed by enough pineapple-themed souvenirs to keep you occupied all day. With no shortage of free tasters on the tour, as well as the unmissable pineapple ice cream, this is the pineapple lover’s dream and a fun filler for children.
Although a good stop on a car journey, it’s best to think of this as a good chance to try out some different types of pineapple and stock up on bizarre souvenirs. This tourist trap may be somewhat disappointing to those going out of their way for the ultimate pineapple experience.
Opening hours: 9am – 6pm
Price: Adults – ¥600. Children – ¥300.
19 – Ishigaki Island
Some of the best of the Ryukyu Islands’ coral reef can be found around Ishigaki Island. Although the island can only been reached from Okinawa’s main island via plane, this doesn’t quell the tourists from arriving by the dozen. If you’re looking for the whitest, most pristine beaches, the famous Yonehara Beach isn’t for you. Look beyond the pebbled coast into the deep ocean bursting with life, from trumpet fish, clown fish and lion fish to turtles and puffer fish. A campsite along Yonehara Beach allows you to pitch up for just ¥400 so you can be the first one to get your snorkel out the next morning.
The rest of the island consists of an impressive spread of jungle and rivers fit for exciting water sports including kayaking and white water rapids. If you’re looking for more calming jungle activities, make your way up to the northern coast of the island via bus or car to Yaeyama Palm Tree Grove where you can take a short walk through the jungle to a spot boasting 10-meter tall palm trees. Spoil yourself to the irresistible dragon fruit juice, ice cream and kakigōri (shaved ice) on sale in the area.
Warning: Box jellyfish and strong currents can be found in the waters here. Please check guidelines and follow any advice given by locals.
20 – Tour de Okinawa
When you think of cyclists in Japan, maybe, like me, you imagine the docile city cyclist calmly winding his way between pedestrians along the pavement. But that isn’t to say that all cyclists in Japan like to keep a steady pace. Every November, professional cyclists travel from far and wide to participate in the tropical island’s growing cycling event, the Tour de Okinawa.
While the Okinawans are known for their relaxed lifestyle revolving around sun and sea, the Tour de Okinawa takes us up a gear for a tough two days of competitive professional cycling. The tour traverses the whole island as well as several coastlines so you can cheer the brave contestants along while enjoying the pop-up food and music stalls from the sidelines.