Lying far from the rest of the bigger islands in the main Japanese archipelago in a turquoise subtropical sea, Okinawa is Japan’s getaway from the icy embrace of winter.
Being situated much closer to Taiwan than they are to Japan, the islets that compose the prefecture of Okinawa never experience winter lows that fall below 15 degrees Centigrade, allowing a place where warm weather flora and fauna flourishes. As such, tourism is one of this far flung province’s biggest industries, welcoming millions of cold-weary Japanese and foreigners every year.
For most of its history though, these seemingly puny islands enjoyed a great deal of autonomy in their own affairs, only being consumed by the Japanese empire during the Meiji Restoration in the 19th Century. Prior to that, the Ryuku kingdom ruled vice over Okinawa, dictating their own domestic affairs while paying tribute to China, and then after the 17th Century, to the shoguns of “mainland” Japan. The Second World War was not kind to these isles, as its destroyed many of the cultural relics that existed here (though some places, like the Shuri Castle, have been restored).
In spite of this misfortune however, modern Okinawa holds plenty more in store for visitors, with the best climate in Japan by far, having many beaches to die for and possessing pristine land and marine environments that are home to a wide array of plants and animals.
In addition to that, are you also aware that Okinawa is credited with being the birthplace of karate, one of the world’s most famous martial arts? Maybe enrolling in a dojo there is in your immediate future!
So, is the dry arctic air descending from the Siberian plains sapping your spiritual strength as you struggle to get through another trying week of corporate nonsense, or ESL instruction in Japan/Korea this winter? Then Japan’s pearls in the East China Sea await your expedient arrival!
Before logging some serious time on the sands and in the warm waters off the shores of Okinawa, take some time to experience the history of this special grouping of islands in the southern seas of Japan. Make your first stop at Shuri Castle in Naha, which served as the seat of the Ryuku kingdom until political control over Okinawa was wrested from them by imperial decree during the Meiji period of rule.
As mentioned in the intro, Shuri Castle was reduced to rubble during World War II, but after the bombs had stopped dropping, this site was mostly restored in 1958, with additional retrofits being completed in 1992. It is quite remarkable the job that the reconstruction crews, considering that they rebuilt the gates, stone walls, and the elaborate gardens working off nothing but photographs. In fact, they did such an amazing job that UNESCO made this place a World Heritage Site in 2000, as it is one of the few relics of the old Ryuku kingdom that remains on this island chain in the condition that is in, despite its status as a refurbished site.
To find out more about the hell that was brought on Okinawa during the closing acts of World War II, be sure to pay a visit to Okinawa Peace Park. This sobering place chronicles the unthinkably bloody Battle of Okinawa, which claimed 200,000 lives (100,000 of which were civilians), or about ¼ of the population of the islands at the time. It was the only land-based invasion of Japan during the war, as the events in Hiroshima and Nagasaki later that year made such further interventions unnecessary.
If you are interested in finding out what life in a traditional Okinawan village was like in years past, then Taketomi Village is a place you should include on your itinerary. Here, walk amongst the living village, taking your time to check out the various shops and cafes, weavers that thread together minsā cloth, and the most southerly temple in Japan, which also serves as a museum for the local area.
As far as modern attractions go, Churaumi Aquarium looms above all the others in grandeur. This aquarium contains one of the largest holding tanks in the world, as it is home to whale sharks and manta rays, as well as countless varieties of tropical fish. It is a mesmerizing sight to behold, and at times, you will feel like you’ve been teleported inside one of those marine screensavers that you may have used on your computers in the past!
For those looking to get active, great news! Okinawa has some of the best diving grounds in the world just off its coast (so close in fact, that in some spots you may not even need a boat). Rivalling the Great Barrier Reef in brilliance, the only drawback is its cost … but hey, you’re in Japan! Many things are expensive, and sometimes, the best things in life cost a little bit of money.
Many of you however, will simply be content to lie on a beach, especially if you’ve just escaped the winter in more northerly parts of Japan/Asia. To make the most of your time if this is your priority, make for Emerald Beach. Located on a lagoon, the water quality is exceptional, and those craving urban necessities will be pleased, as it is located near a built up area. Those seeking a beach that is quieter will enjoy Tokashiku Beach, which is situated on the west coast of the main island.