Located at the southernmost region of Japan, Okinawa Prefecture has a distinctly different flavor from the rest of the Land of the Rising Sun. Situated far away from mainland Kyushu, a whole different culture evolved here that dates back to the Stone Age. Then came the Ryukyu Kingdom, which helped form the unique Okinawan culture which you’ll get to experience through a wide variety of things to do in the region.
So, what awaits in Okinawa? Paragliding, surfing, sunbathing on pristine beaches, eating Yaeyama cuisines featuring tropical ingredients and learning about the history of the Ryukyu Kingdom by visiting castle ruins and recreations of traditional villages. Oh, not to mention, giant underwater ruins with unknown origins off the westernmost point of Japan. To help you experience the most of the region, here is a list of things to do in Okinawa, Japan.
1. Admire the gusuku architecture of Shuri Castle
Explore the epicenter of the Ryukyu Kingdom, Shuri Castle, and admire its distinct gusuku architecture. Shuri Castle both has areas open to the public for free, as well as spots that need a separate admission fee to be accessed. Some of the things you can see at Shuri Castle for free include the general vicinity of the Seiden, as well as the road that leads through the Shureimon and into the Seiden. The paid experience, however, offers a deeper look into Shuri Castle. At an additional fee, you can access important parts such as a sacred area for the king, the private quarters of the king and his family, the Seiden interior, and the central area of Shuri Castle. Some level of fitness is required, as you’ll have to climb a lot of stairs to explore the parts of Shuri Castle that are open to the public.
Address: 1 Chome-2 Shurikinjocho, Naka, Okinawa, Japan
Website: Shuri Castle
Opening hours: 8am - 8:30pm (daily)
Price: 7.62 USD
2. Learn war history at Okinawa Honto
Okinawa Honto, or more popularly known to tourists as Okinawa Island, is the largest of the Okinawa Islands and the former seat of power of the Ryukyu Kingdom. The main hubbub of activity is located here, and while people don’t often go to Okinawa Island for nature, it’s a must-visit for people who are deeply interested in war history. Okinawa Island occupied an ideal and strategic location back in the Second World War. It was the site of the Battle of Okinawa, which resulted in the invasion of the island by American troops. Because of the outcome of the Battle of Okinawa, the presence of the US army is strongly felt in Okinawa Honto- there are over 30 bases and more than 40 training sites on this island.
What sets Okinawa apart from the rest of Japan is the tropical weather. Thanks to this, your next stop, the Southeast Botanical Gardens, thrives. The Southeast Botanical Gardens is home to over 1,300 different species of tropical fauna, from lotus flowers to the peculiar looking Baobab tree, which originates all the way from Madagascar. Take pictures at the palm-tree-lined walkway, admire the Dragon Blood trees, and join one of the hands-on workshops. One of our favorites, Botanic Bottlium, gets you to make a souvenir you can take home. There is also a petting zoo, where you can interact with goats, capybaras, squirrel monkeys, and more.
Southeast Botanical Gardens Admission Ticket
When in Okinawa, don’t miss out on the chance to experience the region’s underwater beauty. One of the best ways to do so is by going on a snorkeling trip to Okinawa’s Blue Cave, located off Cape Maeda. This partially submerged attraction is so-called for its gleaming blue waters, thanks to the sunlight that’s streaming into the cave. Inside the cave, you’ll get to meet some of Okinawa’s marine residents, with large schools of Japanese parrotfish, blotcheye soldierfish, and scissortail sergeant swimming in the waters. If you’re lucky, you might even get to see a sea turtle or two.
Okinawa Blue Cave! Snorkeling Experience
5. Go bird-watching in Kume Island
Kumejima or Kume Island is the prime spot in Okinawa Prefecture to go bird-watching. Like the smaller islands of the region, Kume Island is less developed than Okinawa Honto or other island centers, which gives way to a dense forest cover that’s home to a myriad species of tropical birds. The interior of Kume Island, in particular, draws the attention of avid birdwatchers because of its wetland landscape– a favorite feeding and nesting spot for many of Kume Island’s local birds.
Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium holds the prestige of being one of the largest facilities of its kind in the world! And inside, it’s a celebration of undersea life all throughout. Considered as the best aquarium in all of Japan, Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium is home to the gargantuan Kuroshio Tank, where you can view manta rays and whale sharks gliding majestically. Two other highlights include the shell pool, where you can touch seashells and living starfish, and the coral tank, known as the first large scale exhibit of its kind in the world. Our favorite part of Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, however, is the special area where you can view bioluminescent fish, which live in the deepest waters. It’s not every day you get to see nature’s grandeur like this.
General Admission to Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium
7. Bring your kids to Okinawa World
Your crash course into Okinawan culture continues when you visit Okinawa World, a local theme park dedicated to the prefecture’s distinct island culture. One of the main highlights of Okinawa World is the massive cave called Gyokusendo, measured as the second-longest cave in Japan at 5 kilometers (3.11 miles). Then, there’s the Kingdom Village, a recreation of the traditional Okinawan villages that littered the region in the olden days. Upon display are a wide variety of Okinawan arts and crafts. Here’s where you can join several workshops if you’re after a more hands-on experience. Finally, there’s Habu Park, a small garden which features a snake exhibit and snake show.
Address: Japan, 〒901-0616 Okinawa, Nanjo, 玉城前川1336
Website: Okinawa World
Opening hours: 9am - 6pm (daily)
Price: 15.51 USD (all attractions)
8. Go shopping at Ashibinaa Outlet Mall
Satisfy your urge for retail therapy at Ashibinaa Outlet Mall, which is just a 15-minute drive from the airport in Okinawa Honto. Outlet malls are a fixture in the national Japanese shopping scene, and Ashibinaa Outlet Mall delivers. It houses a bevy of international luxury brands such as Gucci and Giorgio Armani. If you’re looking for local products, Ashibinaa Outlet Mall also has an array of Japanese specialist stores. Explore these boutiques to find the perfect gifts for your loved ones back home.
Ashibinaa Outlet Mall
Address: １-188 Toyosaki, Tomigusuku, Okinawa 901-0225, Japan
Website: Ashibinaa Outlet Mall
Opening hours: 10am - 8pm (daily)
9. Taste the local cuisines on Yaeyama Islands
We can all agree that Japanese cuisine ranks as one of the best in the world, but if you’re looking for a different take on Japanese food, come to the Yaeyama Islands. We call this island chain the culinary center of Okinawa Prefecture. In Yaeyama, frying is the norm, mixed in with local ingredients unavailable anywhere else in Japan. You’ll get to taste sea grapes, asa seaweed, local fish, and of course, Yaeyama soba. Because of its location, Yaeyama seasonal cuisines also feature plenty of tropical favorites, like pineapples, guava, papaya, mango, and watermelon. Japanese cuisine with a tropical twist? Count us in!
Address: Okinawa Prefecture, Japan
10. Discover the amazing underwater ruins of Yonaguni Island
Located on the far western reaches of Japan, Yonaguni Island is quite the mystery. It is home to a unique local culture, the native Yonaguni horses, and the one-of-a-kind Yonaguniori weaving technique, which incorporates threads dyed with local plants and even soil. The most fascinating thing about Yonaguni Island, however, is its collection of mysterious underwater ruins. Nobody knows how these megaliths got there, who built them, and how long they’ve been there. All we know is that this group is massive, with structures such as pillars and stairs. You can see these mysterious ruins by going on a diving tour.
Address: Yaeyama Islands, Okinawa Prefecture, Japan
Iriomote Island is not hard to miss while you’re in Okinawa; it’s the second-largest island in the region. And sure enough, there are tons to do in this largely undeveloped paradise. You can go trekking in Iriomote Island, with about 90 percent of its land covered by a dense tropical jungle. The hardest trail runs for about 20 kilometers (12.43 miles), taking you deep within the island’s interior. Several rivers also flow throughout Iriomote Island, and so kayaking and canoeing are highly recommended activities. By the coast, you can find stretches of pristine beach to get your tan. Watch out for the Iriomote Yamaneko while you’re on the island. It’s a type of wildcat that only lives here.
Iriomote Kayaking and Trekking Day Tour to Sangara Falls from Ishigaki
12. Learn about naval history at the former Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters
Okinawa Honto, as mentioned earlier, proved to be a strategic location, especially during the Second World War. As a result, the Americans tried to secure the location, sparking the Battle of Okinawa against the imperial Japanese. One of the remnants of this part of Okinawa’s history is the former Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters. Located in a tunnel complex below ground, this former naval headquarters is open for public viewing. There are pathways waiting to be explored, as well as rooms that served various purposes during the Second World War.
Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters
Address: 236 Tomigusuku, Okinawa 901-0241, Japan
Opening hours: Oct - Jun: 8:30am - 5pm; Jul - Sep: 8:30am - 5:30pm (daily)
Price: 4.15 USD (adults); 2.07 USD (kids)
13. Explore the Nakijin Castle ruins
Before Okinawa was united by the Ryukyu Kingdom, the main island was divided into three kingdoms: the Hokuzan up north, the Nanzan in the south, and the Chuzan right in the heart of the island. The Hokuzan’s seat of power was Nakijin Castle, which was built back in the 13th century. Today, you can view the ruins of this ancient castle overlooking the lush forests of northern Okinawa Honto. Eventually, Nakijin was taken over by the Chuzan kingdom until Okinawa Honto was finally unified. Most of Nakijin Castle’s history is preserved in Nakijin Village History and Culture Center, where you can find artifacts that date back to the time of the Hokuzan.
Nakijin Castle ruins
Address: 5101 Imadomari, Nakijin, Kunigami District, Okinawa 905-0428, Japan
Website: Nakijin Castle Ruins
Opening hours: Jan - Apr: 8am - 6pm; May - Aug: 8am - 7pm; Sep - Dec: 8am - 6pm (daily)
Price: 3.76 USD (museum and castle); 1.41 USD (museum only)
14. Remember the brave hearts at Okinawa Senseki Quasi-National Park
Located in the battlefields in south Okinawa Honto, the Okinawa Senseki Quasi-National Park sits high on the Mabuni Hill area overlooking the sea. It’s a fitting place to remember the brave souls who fought well during the turbulent World War II. There are several features that make up the Okinawa Senseki Quasi-National Park. There’s the Peace Memorial Park, where you can find the Peace Memorial Museum, the Cornerstone of Peace, the Okinawa Peace Hall, and the National Cemetery for the Okinawa Battle Dead, where about 180,000 remains were laid to rest. Another feature is the Tower of Himeyuri, built on top of underground shelters to commemorate the Himeyuri Gakutokai or Star Lily Corps. It was composed of 222 Japanese schoolgirls and 18 high school teachers.
Okinawa Senseki Quasi-National Park
Address: 444 Mabuni, Itoman, Okinawa 901-0333, Japan
Website: Okinawa Senseki Quasi-National Park
Opening hours: 24 hours (daily)
Okinawa Prefecture is full of surprises! Take Taketomi Island, for example. The only way to access this unspoiled beauty is to go to Ishigaki Island and, from the port there, ride a ferry to Taketomi Island. And once you’re there, the landscape will take your breath away. White-sand beaches, crystal clear waters, calm waves– this is one of the last untouched paradises on earth. Taketomi Island is also home to traditional structures made of wood and limestone. The streets are paved with white coral sand, lending a nice contrast to the red roof that is prevalent on Taketomi Island. The best way to explore this gem is through a bike or a water buffalo cart, the latter reminiscent of the old way of life in Okinawa.
Taketomi Island Water Buffalo Cart & Bike Rental from Ishigaki
Can’t get enough of Iriomote Island? We can’t, as well! Iriomote Island deserves another visit, and this time, you should explore the vast network of caves on the island. There are limestone caves scattered around Iriomote Island, some of which are connected to each other. You’ll emerge in pristine spots of Iriomote Island, mostly untouched, and so lush. There are several tour outfitters that offer cave explorations and short courses on canyoneering in Iriomote Island. For your convenience, do check out our partner link, which offers a three-hour expedition complete with all the safety gear you need.
Iriomote Island cave exploration & canyoning short course
Sure, there are many fantastic viewing decks in Okinawa Prefecture to enjoy the sunset, but there are other ways you can enjoy this natural phenomenon. For instance, you can rent a paddleboard and go stand-up paddleboarding on Ishigaki Ocean at the right time, just to watch the sunset over the horizon. It would make for a memorable and one-of-a-kind experience, especially for your trip to Ishigaki Island. Do it alone, with friends, or turn it into a romantic outing with your significant other.
-Ishigaki Ocean- Sunset View Standup Paddleboarding with English-Speaking Guide
Ryukyu Mura in central Okinawa Honto is a history-themed park, especially concentrating on the story and culture of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which flourished in Okinawa Island from the 15th to the 19th centuries. Ryukyu Mura doesn’t feel like a theme park, however. It feels like a traditional Okinawan village, with its collection of perfectly recreated shrines, workshops, and typhoon-proof residences with their distinct red-tiled roof (a common feature in Okinawa Prefecture). Aside from sight-seeing, you can join one of the workshops at Ryukyu Mura, which includes pottery, coaster weaving, painting a small statue, and learning how to play the Sanshin guitar. There’s also a variety of live performances involving song and dance, and of course, the opportunity to sample some traditional Okinawan dishes.
Okinawa Ryukyu Mura Admission Ticket
Kabira Bay is undeniably one of the most beautiful spots in the entire Okinawa Prefecture (and believe us– there are many). So, why should you spend half a day traveling to Kabira Bay on Ishigaki Island? Here are a couple of reasons. Aside from the fantastic views, Kabira Bay is quite well known in the region for the cultivation of rare black pearls. It’s the main reason why swimming is strictly prohibited. In fact, there are only two places that cultivate black pearls in Japan: Kabira Bay and Iriomote Island. Another interesting spot in Kabira Bay is the ancient Kannon temple located on the hilltop overlooking the bay. It’s said it was constructed back in the 17th century. Other than black pearls and an old temple, Kabira Bay is simply a beautiful place to spend your day while you’re on Ishigaki Island.
Kabira Bay Sightseeing: Ishigaki Half Day Bus Tour
Go sailing on Zampa Point or Maeda Point on a colorful Hawaiian-style canoe and harness the power of the wind to get to where you want to be. Depending on the strength of the wind on the day you’re sailing, it can be anywhere from gentle, smooth sailing to an adrenaline-pumping experience. If you’re lucky, you might find sea turtles and giant manta rays swimming alongside your watercraft. Check out the link below to set sail on a two-person Hawaiian-style canoe. The entire excursion will take about 60 minutes to several hours. Life jackets and hydration are included in the package. All you need to bring is yourself, a bottle of reef-friendly sunscreen, and other preferred items of sun protection.
Hawaiian Canoe Sailing Adventure in Okinawa
21. Try ocean walking in Nagannu Island
Nagannu Island is often called desert island for its bare landscape, covered in white sand. It’s one of the best places in Okinawa Prefecture to work on your tan. The real treat and treasure of Nagannu Island, however, lies underwater. Marine life is abundant and thriving around Nagannu Island. You can go snorkeling, diving, or better yet, try out ocean walking to experience this hidden world. There are numerous outfitters you can get in touch with to take you ocean walking in Nagannu Island. Get ready to encounter manta rays, sea turtles, and large schools of fish swimming all around you.
22. Admire the scenic beauty at Aka Island
From Naha in Okinawa Honto, hop on a high-speed boat to Aka Island for a day trip in paradise, that you’ll never forget. One of the Kerama Islands, Aka Island is well known for its pristine beaches, clear azure waters (the water is actually called Kerama Blue), and teeming marine life. You can tour the entire island on a bike as the entire circumference of Aka Island only spans 12 kilometers (7.45 miles). After the bike ride, cool off at one of the beaches and take a dip to check out the coral reefs scattered around the island. Like to fish? Head to Nishibama Beach, the best spot on the island to catch some fresh seafood.
23. Book a fishing tour with Taemaru
Aka Island is a great spot for fishing indeed, but you can start your fishing expedition just about anywhere in Okinawa and reap the rewards of a great day out in the sea. Taemaru is one of the highly recommended local fishing tours, based in Kadena Port. They can take you out on a coral reef near the port and enjoy a bountiful harvest. Taemaru goes out to host fishing tours twice a day (one in the morning and one in the afternoon), so if you’d like to go out for two consecutive fishing trips, the folks at Taemaru can help.
24. Try surfing on the crystal-clear waters of Yonaguni Island
There are many spots for surfing in Japan, but Okinawa has the best waves. Yonaguni Island, the most remote of all the islands in the chain, has exceptionally strong currents and high waves that can make it a paradise for the most experienced and advanced of surfers. If you’re up for the challenge, try surfing with some pros off Yonaguni Island after exploring the undersea megaliths. It would make a trip of a lifetime.
25. Soak in the West Coast vibes at American Village
Set foot in American Village and you might be wondering, “Am I in the United States or am I still in Japan?” This little slice of America in Okinawa Honto is an exciting entertainment complex that mixes both western and eastern charms. Formerly known as Mihama American Village, this attraction looks like a sprawling shopping area complete with a plethora of shopping and dining options. The main attraction of American Village, however, is the Ferris Wheel, which towers above the entire complex. At night, it’s all lit up, proving to be quite a vision even after the sun sets. Feast on hotdogs and hamburgers, watch an American or Japanese movie, and cap the day off at Sunset Beach.
Mihama American Village
Address: 15-69 Mihama, Chatan, Nakagami District, Okinawa 904-0115, Japan
Website: Mihama American Village
Opening hours: Hours vary
Price: 4.70 USD (ferris wheel)
26. Tour Minatogawa Stateside Town
If you’re after a more authentic Okinawan shopping and retail experience, skip the outlet store and the American Village and head straight to Minatogawa Stateside Town. At first glance, it’s a sleepy little neighborhood, but upon closer inspection, it reveals to be a quaint tourist destination where you can try out different cafes and shops, all located in what used to be buildings used for military housing. Minatogawa Stateside Town paints an interesting look at how the Japanese have taken what used to be U.S-occupied land back and made it their own, with a bit of western influence. Some of the best cafes in Minatogawa Stateside Park include Spice Cafe Hochi Hochi, Ippe Coppe, and Okinawa Cerrado Coffee.
Minatogawa Stateside Town
Address: 2 Chome-18-3 Minatogawa, Urasoe, Okinawa 901-2134, Japan
Website: Minatogawa Stateside Town
Opening hours: Tue - Sun: 9am - 6pm (closed on Mon)
27. Go on a paragliding adventure
Now that you’ve experienced what Okinawa has to offer on the ground and under the sea, it’s time to see the islands up in the air via paragliding. It’s easy to connect to one of the many outfitters in Okinawa Honto offering paragliding tours, ready to take you up high in the sky to get unobstructed, birds-eye views of Okinawa. Don’t forget to take an action camera with you to take snapshots!
28. Watch an Okinawan bullfight
Bullfighting is a little bit controversial, but Okinawan bullfights are spectacles you should see at least once in your life. Locally known as ushiorase, it’s unclear when Okinawan bullfighting originated in the islands, but there’s reason to believe it’s been around since the early 20th century. Okinawan bullfights were momentarily suspended at the height of World War II when the island became battlegrounds between the Allies and the Japanese. Now, it’s a popular spectator sport that mostly takes place at the Ishikawa Multipurpose Dome in Uruma City.
Address: Okinawa, Japan
Price: Starts at 18.80 USD
Start your Okinawan adventure
Before you go, brush up on your Japanese language skills and learn more about Okinawa by checking out more of our Okinawa travel guides. There are more things to do in Okinawa– all you need to do is check with us. We’ll lead you to all the best places.
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