When you think of Japan, you'd be forgiven for not envisioning tropical islands with turquoise waters, white-sand beaches and reefs teeming with colourful marine life. But off the coast of its mainland, that's exactly what you'll find.
Scattered across the East China Sea, the Okinawa Islands are a rare treasure worth discovering for yourselves. Part of the larger Ryukyu Islands group, these sun-kissed gems offer plenty for beach-lovers, adventure-seekers, foodies and romantics. To inspire your own unique island escape, we've found some seriously amazing things to check out in Okinawa.
Related article: Top 5 things to do in Okinawa, Japan
Dive into an underwater wonderland
If you've always dreamed of snorkelling and diving in a destination like the Maldives or Bora Bora but also love the Japanese culture, Okinawa is the perfect match. Offering the best of both worlds, the islands are surrounded by beautiful coral reefs, warm waters and brilliant coral (it's believed that roughly 200 species out of the world's 800 species of coral inhabit this region).
Avid divers, make your way to the main island (Okinawa Island) for spectacular diving just off the shoreline. Top spots include the popular Maeda Point and Sunabe Seawall for its soft-coral gardens. Or, hitch a boat ride out to the Kerama islands (there are 22 in total, with four uninhabited) and Ishigakijima for clear waters and fascinating marine life – look out for turtles, rays, sharks and curious reef fish. More into snorkelling? Feel as if you're in a fantasy film when you float along the azure waters of the main island's aptly named Blue Cave or discover more than 17 kilometres of reef at Yabiji on Miyako Island.
Escape to postcard-ready beaches
After exploring Okinawa's underwater playgrounds, return to its shoreline for pristine, picture-perfect beaches. A real must-visit for its white sands, gin-clear waters and eye-catching arch-shaped rock formation, Sunayama Beach on Miyako Island is every bit the beach idyll. And don't miss taking a refreshing dip at Aharen Beach on Tokashiki Island, Hatenohama Cay Beach on Kume Island and Minami-jima Beach on the island of the same name.
Or, mix a beach visit with a cultural experience with a visit to Kadaka Island (pictured above). Believed to be where Amamikyu (the creation goddess) of the Ryuku Islands descended from the skies, the island is dotted with important cultural sites and secluded beaches.
Marvel at the Ishigaki Island Limestone Cave
One of the Okinawa Islands' most treasured sites, the Ishigaki Island Limestone Cave will impress adventure-seeking couples. Evolving over 200,000 years, the limestone cave was once underwater. Today you'll spot ancient geological formations like corals and fossils lining the cave's walls.
The journey to the cave alone is enough to make you feel like an old-world explorer. Weave your way through a network of stalactite-filled tunnels to reach the magical site and prepared to humbled by the cave's grandeur.
Taste unique cuisine you won't find anywhere else
From its scenery to its climate and cultural wonders, the Okinawa Islands are undeniably unique. The cuisine here is no different, influenced by its Japanese heritage and ties with China, Korea and Southeast Asia. You can find sushi restaurants thanks to their modern popularity, but resist falling into ordering your usual go-tos. Instead, pull up a chair or stool at one of Okinawa's local hotspots for gastronomic delights you won't find anywhere else in the world.
A real crowd-pleaser, rafute is definitely worth ordering. A simple dish of succulent pork belly simmered in soy sauce and glazed with brown sugar, it's devilishly indulgent. Also, order yourselves some Okinawa soba (pictured above) for a hearty bowl of firm wheat soba noodles swimming in clear pork broth and topped with slow-cooked pork spare ribs – pork is kind of a big deal here. And don't leave without trying the islands' signature dish goya champuru, a sort of stir-fry made with goya (a type of green gourd), tofu, pork and egg. Don't knock it till you try it.
Discover Okinawa's incredible historical sites
It's not all sun-kissed beaches and coral reefs in the Okinawa Islands (though we wouldn't blame you for spending the days enjoying plenty of both). A place of both tragedy and wonder, the islands and their history are truly captivating, and there's plenty of historical sites to check out while here.
After the 90-day Battle of Okinawa, the islands lost much of their population and those remained worked to make the destination a beacon of peace. Spread across the island are amazing landmarks dedicated to this, like the Okinawa Prefectural Peach Memorial Museum, Himeyuri Peace Museum (dedicated to the women that were conscripted as nurses) and the Cornerstone of Peace. Arguably the islands' most cherished historical site, though, is the spellbinding Shuri Castle (pictured above). The political, economic and cultural centre of Okinawa's Ryukyu Kingdom for more than 450 years, the World Heritage-listed site is perfect for wandering hand-in-hand, admiring the castle's stunning architecture as you pass by.
Get to know modern Okinawa at its markets
Here at H4C, we think one of the best ways to get a sense of a destination's true character is to visit its local markets. The Okinawa islands is no exception, with its public markets drawing locals to gather, catch up with familiar faces, shop and, of course, eat.
After ticking off the islands' more Insta-ready sites, make your way to the Heiwa Street (pictured above) or Naha Public Market on the main island. A labyrinth of exciting sights and smells, it's where you'll be treated to street-food such as tempura, steamed cakes and goya juice. There are also plenty of smaller markets held across the islands, selling everything from quirky knick-knacks to straight-from-the-ocean oysters.
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Image credits: ©JNTO, ©Klaus Stiefel & Piranha Divers Okinawa, © Y.Shimizu, ©Saori K, ©Akimasa Yuasa,