The islands of the Okinawan archipelago make up Japan’s southernmost prefecture, which actually lies closer in distance to Taiwan than to the Japanese mainland. Historically, the islands of Okinawa formed a separate country called the Ryukyu Kingdom, which had its own distinct language and customs. Today, the culture of Okinawa combines elements borrowed from Japan, China and Taiwan as well as its own native traditions.
In the 15th century, the Ryukyu Kingdom established trade with neighbouring China, leading the islands to prosper while Japan experienced a period of self-imposed isolation. In 1609, the kingdom was invaded by samurai from the Japanese Shimazu clan, who demanded that it become a vassal state of the Satsuma domain. This arrangement remained throughout the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868), though the kingdom retained its sovereignty. Following the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Japan annexed the islands, which led to their eventually being officially incorporated in 1879.
In 1945, as the Second World War neared its conclusion and the Allied Forces’ confrontations with Japan intensified, 185,000 US soldiers invaded Okinawa. A large number of Okinawan civilians lost their lives in the conflict. Once the war had finished, the US Army established several military bases on the islands. The III Marine Expeditionary Force remains based on the island of Okinawa to this day.
In the past few decades, Okinawans have become famous for their longevity, with five times more islanders living to 100 than in the rest of Japan. This is thought to be down to a combination of a diet high in organic, local produce and a typically active lifestyle.
Okinawa is divided into three main sub-groups of islands – the Okinawa Islands, the Miyako Islands and the Yaeyama Islands. Each sub-group has distinctive cultural attributes, as does each individual island.
Okinawa Island is the largest and most built-up of the archipelago, home to the prefecture’s capital city Naha. The city boasts a few notable historical sites, though much of the old city was destroyed in the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. The Tamaudun Mausoleum, built in the 16th century houses the remains of the Ryukuan royal family. Despite suffering extensive damage during the Second World War, the mausoleum has since been restored and provides a fascinating insight into the history of Okinawa. Other attractions on Okinawa Island include Ryukuan castles Nakagusuku, Katsuren and Nakijin. For something a bit unusual, visit Nago Pineapple Park – an amusement park, which educates visitors about pineapple farming.
If you’ve signed up to our Okinawa 4-night extension, you will be travelling to Ishigaki Island, the main hub of the Yaeyama Islands, which lie to the far south of the island chain. You’ll be staying near the picturesque Kabira Bay, an area of white sand beaches and crystal-clear waters.
Activities on the itinerary include a visit to the Yaima Village, a perfect replica of an old Yaeyama-style settlement. The village is also a home to a colony of wild squirrel monkeys, which you can interact with! You’ll also have the chance to experience the beautiful Banna Park, an amazing hiking spot and a great place to look out for exotic wildlife.
On the final day of your trip, you can take a boat to neighbouring Taketomi Island. Hiring a bike is the best way to explore this tiny idyll, which has a population of just over 320. Look out for the traditional Okinawan houses that are dotted around the island before heading to the beach for a relaxing afternoon of swimming and sunbathing. Taketomi is surrounded by coral reefs, so it’s also an ideal location for snorkelling.
Okinawan cuisine is distinct from Japanese cuisine found on the mainland, though you will notice some similarities. There are regional variations on Japanese staples, such as Ishigaki’s onisasa, a spin on onigiri rice balls, consisting of a breaded chicken fillet sandwiched between rice and wrapped in nori seaweed.
Due to the position of the Okinawan islands, there are more dishes influenced by China and Southeast Asia. Chanpuru– perhaps Okinawa’s best-known dish – is an example of this. It’s a kind of stir fry, typically containing a mixture of vegetables, egg, tofu and either sliced pork or spam. The most traditional version of the dish includes goya, a bitter, cucumber-like vegetable that grows in abundance throughout Okinawa.
Also worth trying are umibudou, or ‘sea grapes’ – a type of seaweed often served as a snack and sometimes translated as ‘green caviar’.
The islands to the north and centre of the archipelago have a sub-tropical climate, while those in the south have a tropical rainforest climate. Temperatures vary from warm to hot, with temperatures tending not to dip below 12ºC in the north and 16ºC in the south. Humidity is high throughout the year and the rainy season lasts from early May until June. November is best voided as it is typhoon season. March and April are great times to visit, as well as July and August if you enjoy high temperatures.