Visit Okinawa: what see and do on the main island

The prefecture of Okinawa and its many islands are often chosen for their beautiful beaches by the Japanese and not only. Actually, the best sea and beaches on Okinawa are to be found on the smaller, more or less neighboring islands, such as the Kerama Islands (where you can swim with turtles in Zamami) or Ishigaki.
Even on the main island of Okinawa, however, there are many beautiful beaches, but also many other things to visit, whether natural or cultural.
To visit Okinawa’s main island it is essential to rent a car, because unlike in ‘mainland’ Japan, public transport is poor: buses are very slow and there are no trains, except for the Naha monorail.
I spent six days there and I think they were perfect to see a bit of all aspect of Okinawa: beaches, nature, points of interest and historical places.

What to see and do in Okinawa

The northern part of Okinawa is very wild, almost entirely covered by tropical forest and with cliffs overlooking the sea, most of the attractions are concentrated in the central southern area, from the Motobu peninsula all the way south, so for this reason when we talk about the northern area, we refer to what geographically speaking is actually the central area of the island.
Personally, I recommend organizing the days according to zones, to avoid wasting a lot of time in the car (partly because of speed limits, partly because of traffic, and partly because of the stretch of motorway that only covers a small part of the island) and to optimize the time available.
In order to visit everything thoroughly and calmly and also allow ourselves a few moments of relaxation on the beach, we spent six days in Okinawa, but by speeding up the pace a little, even five days are sufficient.

Naha and nearby

Naha is the capital of the prefecture, where Okinawa Airport is also located. If you are thinking of Japanese cities, Naha is rather small and can be visited on foot or by public transport, thanks to the convenient monorail that connects it to the airport and stops near the main attractions.
The most interesting areas are the Kokusai Street area and the Beach Area.

Kokusai Street

This is the main street, where you will find the most life in the evenings, with lots of souvenir and sweet shops, especially with the purple potato, a typical Okinawan product. It’s also a street full of restaurants and bars, but personally, I advise you to avoid the ones that advertise themselves too much with a thousand huge posters…..entering one of them I ate the worst sushi of my life!!! (By the way I thought I was going to gorge on fish being on a small island…instead meat, especially bbq, is the mainstay here!).

Makishi Public Market and Tsuboya Street

Like any self-respecting Japanese city, Naha also has its covered market, the Makishi Public Market: an area where you can buy all kinds of food and where you can find different kinds of shops, from souvenirs to pharmacies….for souvenirs, however, I found lower prices on Kokusai Street, and also much more choice.
Also in the area is Tsuboya Street, where you can find shops selling typical ceramics and also a dedicated museum.

Naminoue Temple

One of the largest Shinto temples of the island, also known for its unique location overlooking Naha Beach. One of the most famous sights in the capital, which can be photographed by walking along the bridge over the sea that passes right in front of it.
Also located here is the Tsushima-Maru Memorial Museum, a civilian ship that was sunk shortly before the Battle of Okinawa.

Shuri Castle

Shuri Castle is the castle where the Ryukyu Emperor used to reside. Entirely rebuilt after its complete destruction during World War II, much of it can be visited free of charge. An entrance fee is charged only for the inner part and the large ceremonial courtyard.
At the information point near the car parks, it is also possible to request a free audio guide, which is very useful for better appreciating the visit.
Inside there is also a small tea room where for ¥300 you can sip a cup of jasmine tea, the most popular in Okinawa, and various sweets typical of the island.
Outside, on the other hand, at set times, you can watch a small show of typical Ryukyu dances, quite different from the typical Japanese music and dances.
****UPDATE: Unfortunately the castle burnt down again in a fire in 2019 and reconstruction work is currently underway, however in some areas it is still possible to enter and see how the work is progressing.
Hours: 08.30 – 18.00 
Price: ¥400+ ¥320 parking  

Shikinaen Garden

A couple of kilometers from Shuri Castle is the Royal Garden with the Ryukyu King’s summer residence. A beautiful park with a style that is a mix of Japanese and Chinese styles, with stone bridges and a tea pagoda. In this beautiful garden, there is an observation point from which you cannot see the sea but only the land of Okinawa and this is where Chinese emissaries were brought to show the greatness of the fields of the Ryukyu kingdom 😉
Hours: 09.00 – 18.00 closed on Wednesdays
Price: ¥400 

Underground Headquarters of the Japanese Navy

The only visitable underground tunnel of the Battle of Okinawa on the entire island.
During that terrible war, miles and miles of underground tunnels and caves were created where civilian soldiers faced battle. 250 metres of the Underground Headquarters of the Japanese Navy are now passable and a small museum included in the ticket tells the details of this terrible event.
Opening Hours: 09.00 – 17.00
Price: ¥600

Northern area

North Okinawa refers to the area ‘beyond the highway’, although geographically we are actually talking about the center of the island. Beyond the Motobu Peninsula, there is almost exclusively forest and cliffs overlooking the ocean, but if you are a nature lover, you might consider visiting the Hiji Falls, which can be reached by a bit of trekking and where you can also camp.

Kouri Island

A beautiful little island connected to the mainland by a long two-kilometer bridge, which can be photographed in its entire length from the road leading to the Aquarium.
Kouri Island is a sleepy, quiet little island with an observatory and beautiful beaches near the bridge, which does not spoil the atmosphere, but rather the contrast between the white structure of the bridge and the crystal-clear water creates a very striking sight.

Churami Aquarium and Expo Park

One of Okinawa’s most popular attractions is the Churami Aquarium. Let’s pass over the ethical topic on aquariums for a moment (not a topic particularly felt in Japan), The highlight of this aquarium is the huge tank with whale sharks…..they are truly impressive and you can admire them from every angle.
The aquarium is located in Expo Park, a beautiful, large park with free access and free parking. There are several free dolphin shows, children’s play areas, picnic areas and beaches. Expo Park is a popular destination for Sunday family outings because it offers so many possibilities. The sea turtle tanks and the dugong tank can also be visited free of charge. There is also a butterfly garden and a reconstruction of an ancient village, but access is charged as for the Churami Aquarium.
Hours: 08.30 – 18.30 
Price: Aquarium admission ¥2,180 (tickets available online)

Cape Manzamo

Another of the most photographed spots on the island, is a small promontory overlooking the sea where you’ll find a rock with a peculiar shape reminiscent of an elephant’s trunk. On the other side you can see Manza Beach and the ANA International Hotel, somewhat of a symbol of Okinawa tourism.
There is little parking here and you are likely to find a bit of a queue on the way to the viewpoint, but don’t give up, it’s worth it!

Central area

This is the area where the Americans landed during the Second World War and where they had to face the hordes of Japanese warriors coming out of the underground tunnels. Still today the American military bases in Okinawa are located here, and you will notice that the streets are lined with kilometers and kilometers of fences enclosing them.
It is an area that I did not like very much, full of more American-style shops and writing and names almost exclusively in our alphabet… but it is also a very interesting area with ruins of ancient castles and where you can catch a glimpse of some entrances (barred of course) to the Japanese tunnels.

Ruins of Nakagusugu, Katsuren and Zakimi castles

All that remains of most of the castles in the Ryukyu kingdom are ruins, or at most part of the outer walls. However, these ruins are Unesco World Heritage Sites and it is a great experience to visit them and notice the differences in construction compared to the castles of Japan.
Nakagusugu Castle is one of the best preserved, with several parts of the wall bases still intact and even some passages. Moreover, being located on a hill at the narrowest point of the island, it is possible to see both the Pacific Ocean and the China Sea!

Kakazu Park

This was the site of the initial clash between the American and Japanese armies, a bloody battle that recorded the highest number of casualties. At the top of the steps of Kakazu Park is a memorial from which the runway of the American base at Futenma can be clearly seen…….
Also in the immediate vicinity is a half-destroyed post of the Japanese gun outposts and the entrance to one of the underground tunnels, which is, of course, barricaded. In this area, there are several caves and entrances, but most of them I believe are under the control of the American bases and if you are interested in finding out more, there is the episode “The Japanese Fortress” of “Hitler’s Megastructures” on National Geographic TV, which describes them in detail.

Futenma Temple

This small Shinto Shrine next to the military base is very special because of the natural cave it preserves. A mystical cave,  very important for the Shinto religion, an animist religion that recognizes certain sacred places in nature. To access the cave you must go to the small omikuji shop in the temple, a girl will accompany you into the cave and open the door.

American Village

In the middle of the ‘American Area’ you will find this sort of open-air shopping mall, with a large illuminated Ferris wheel. A collection of shops and restaurants, where there is also a bowling alley and a cinema. Nice to spend an evening there and I also point out a good all-you-can-eat shabu-shabu restaurant right opposite the bowling entrance.

Southern area

In the southern part of the island, the epilogue of the battle took place and there are several memorials and monuments to the Peace. But in the southeastern part, the war hardly seems to have arrived: a spiritual zone, with sacred places populated by the ancient animist divinities of the Ryukyu religion. Places of overwhelming nature, are still dear to the island’s inhabitants.

Peace Memorial and Museum

The large Itoman Peace Memorial Park, the Peace Museum, the Himeyuri Monument, and several other memorial sites fill this area.
It is a milestone in the history of this region, for more on this I refer you to Roby’s article on the historical itinerary on the trail of the Battle of Okinawa.

Sefa Utaki

A sacred natural site, Unesco World Heritage Site, cradle of the Ryukyu religion. It is said to be the birthplace of the Ryukyu kingdom and its inhabitants. A logo of worship, where one is invited to pay respect to nature and people in prayer. A short introductory video in English will tell you more about the history of the place.
Hours: 09.00 – 18.00 closed on Okinawan public holidays.
Price: ¥300 

Okinawa World and Gyokusendo Cave

We only went to this theme park to visit the Gyokusendo caves, caves with really impressive stalactites and stalagmites.
Once you descend underground, you will be amazed by the beauty of the cave that will appear before your eyes! Spikes and formations all around you will leave you speechless…. take your time to admire this ‘hall’, the most fascinating area of the entire route. Once you have filled your eyes and heart with this wonder, the route continues, again accompanied by these limestone cones, through the Room of a Thousand Needles to the underground lake, an equally surprising and impressive place.
Otherwise, in the park, there are many workshops for children, a reconstruction of a Ryukyu village and a reptile house. At the entrance, you can choose different ticket combinations depending on the areas you want to visit.
Opening hours: 09.00 – 17.30 
Price Park and caves: 2000¥(small discount if you buy tickets online)

When to go to Okinawa

Okinawa is a tropical island, weather conditions often change in a matter of hours: one minute a violent downpour, the next you’re in danger of getting burnt!
The climate is humid in summer, but fortunately, it is practically always windy. If you want to enjoy the seaside, the best time is from June to September/October, with the exception of August, when the islands are likely to be hit by strong typhoons. However, as early as April the weather is warm enough (22 °C on average), but the water is perhaps a little less warm for swimming. The same applies in November.
The sakura, the cherry blossoms, bloom in Okinawa as early as mid-February. The winter period is perfect for whale-watching and temperatures generally stay above 10°C.
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