Okinawa Beyond the Beaches – Exploring Naha, Iriomote, and Ishigaki

When you see “Okinawa”, your first image is probably a tropical island with beach resorts. And there’s no denying that Okinawa’s offers an amazing seaside vacation experience, however there is so much more to discover in Okinawa.

On a 5 day trip with Japanspecialist, OCVB (Okinawa Convention and Visitor’s Bureau), and JAL (Japan Airlines), I dived deep into the culture, history, and nature of Okinawa main island, Iriomote, and Ishigaki. I was left with nothing but a fulfilling taste of Okinawa’s spirit and wonderful memories.



Getting to Okinawa
It takes about 2.5hrs to fly from Tokyo to Okinawa. JAL (Japan Airlines) operates over 10 flights a day between Tokyo Haneda and Okinawa Naha airport.


In Naha - Okinawa’s Rich History and Culture

Prior to joining Japan as a prefecture in 1879, Okinawa was known as the Ryukyu Kingdom. Upon arriving at Naha airport, you can already feel the vibrant culture of the Ryukyuan from the bright color signs that greet you. Heading into town, you’ll see the distinctive red roofs iconic to Okinawa. As night falls, the paper lanterns light up the city as people head out for a meal. There is a lively yet relaxed atmosphere that is distinctively Okinawa. It’s inviting and friendly, at the same time it’s calming.

Taste of Okinawa
On the first night, I had a taste of Okinawa at a local Izakaya called Dachibin. You’ll see familiar items such as Sashimi and tempura, but a lot of the menu is very different from an Izakaya on Japan mainland. Local delicacies you’ll find are for example Ishigaki beef, pork, and a wide range of fish prepped in many different ways. Something else that is indigenous and unique to Okinawa is Awamori. It’s an alcoholic beverage distilled from rice with about 30-40% alcohol content. Dachibin had no shortage of Awamori, its entire wall was lined with more than 40 types to choose from.
 

Traditional Wear of Okinawa
After a full night’s rest, we head to Veni Studio to try out traditional Ryukyuan wear. It looks similar to a Kimono, however the Obi belt ties the bow in front and there is a second jacket layer on top of the dress. The colors of Okinawa are again represented with the bright reds, yellows, and aqua blue. I also chose to carry a Hanagasa which is a traditional flower shaped hat unique to Okinawa.


  


Historical Walk in Naha's Shuri Area
To explore the historical streets of Naha, we head to Shuri area which is where the castle is located. The walk started from the bottom of the Kinjo Stone Path which is a road that dates back to the 1500s in the Ryukyu Kingdom era. On the left you’ll see Sui Dunchi restaurant which serves local delicacies and has 2 gardens and a pond so you can enjoy a lovely view with your meal. Continuing north up the hill is Kanagushiku Muraya which is a local community hall and a perfect resting spot. There are displays about the history you can read about inside. A little bit further east is the Shuri Kinjo Big Akagi Tree which is over 200 years old with a truck of 20 meters in diameter. And finally you arrive at Shuri Castle.


 


For 450 years, Shuri Castle served as the palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom. It plays a significant political and religious role, surrounded by stone walls for military purposes and filled with many administrative halls, courtyards for reception, and shrines and temples for worship. It has been visited by officials of the Imperial Chinese and even Commodore Perry of the US (though he was denied entry). The castle was recently burned down in a fire in 2019 and is in reconstruction, however you can still visit many of the surrounding spots. One key site is Shureimon, which is a large red gate leading up to the complex. You can find the gate printed on the ¥2,000 Japanese yen note which is commonly found in Okinawa but not on Japan mainland. 

 

Another notable place with Okinawan architecture is Naminoue Shrine, just off the southwest coast of Naha city. It sits on a tall cliff overlooking the beautiful ocean. You can see guardian lions, also known as Shisa on either sides of the shrine. The rooftop is covered in distinct red tiles, and you can find colorful decorations on the wall as well. 

 

Traditional Craft of Okinawa - Shisa
Before leaving Naha, I visited @mi.shisa to learn how to make Shisa from Martin Sensei. He is 3rd generation Argentinian born in Okinawa. After going to art school, focused on sculpting, he wanted to capture Okinawa’s spirit through making Shisa. The clients that request work from him can be newlywed couples or companies that want to commemorate a significant event. We sat down in the courtyard and chitchatted while attempted to make our own Shisas. The process took about 1hr but it was simple and easy to follow. Anyone and even kids without any experience will be able to make one.


 


Naha Hotel Recommendation
If you are staying in Naha, I highly recommend STRATA Naha. It’s in a central location within walking distance to Kokusai-Dori Shopping Street and it’s right next to the monorail station “Miebashi”. I love the hotel because it is modern with a beautiful pool and has excellent western breakfast options. The rooms are spacious and have balconies with amazing views.


In Iriomote – Okinawa’s final frontier

 

Though it is Okinawa’s second largest island, over 90% of Iriomote is uninhabited and lush of nature. It is a part of the Yaeyama Islands which is the remotest part of Japan including the most southern and western inhabited islands.

Getting to Iriomote Island
From Ishigaki, you can take a 1hr ferry which takes you to Iriomote Island. There are multiple ferries a day and you can buy tickets on the same day.


Getting to know Iriomote’s Mangroves by Kayak
You can kayak up Urauchi river to get up close to the Mangroves. The little mud crabs are everywhere near the roots, just minding their own business as you pass by. There’s also all kinds of unique plants that can only be found in this area such as the pink Barringtonia flowers. There’s not many people here so all you hear are sounds of birds and insects chirping. It’s a truly relaxing enjoyment of nature.

   

Waterfall Trekking
Another activity popular amongst visitors is trekking up the thick jungle to find yourself at the spectacular Geta waterfall and a stunning view of the ocean in the distance. The trek is not a difficult one, however appropriate shoes for both water and land is recommended as you will most certainly get soaked from the river flowing through the jungle.

 


Ishigaki – Okinawa’s crystal blue waters

 

If you love being in the ocean and observing marine life, then Ishigaki is the perfect spot. There are many snorkeling and diving spots around the island where you can see coral, sea turtles, and even small sharks.

There’s also plenty of beautiful lookouts if you prefer to stay dry on land. Kabira Bay is one of the most famous one you’ll see on many guide books. You can also ride on glass bottom boats to see the marine life without getting soaked. There’s plenty of restaurants in Kabira Bay area s well, it is a great spot to grab a bite and enjoy Okinawa’s beautiful sandy beaches and water.


Another location with a great look out spot is a gelato café on the top of a hill called Mirumiru Honpo. The large grass field and the blue sky and ocean in the distance makes a beautiful contrasting color of nature’s best features.

As Ishigaki is famous for its salt quality and production, you can also stop by the Salt Spa called “Bian”. There you can float in different salt baths which are healing to the body or enjoy a relaxing massage to rejuvenate tired muscles.


Okinawa is a place which is rich of history and culture, on top of that its abundance in nature makes it a very well-rounded travel destination. Beyond the beaches, there is so much to see, taste, experience, and learn. I hope with this blog post, it will help you plan an adventure of a lifetime on your next visit to Okinawa.

Lastly, I would like to thank Japanspecialist for this wonderful opportunity for a partnership. Japanspecialist is a part of the JTB Corporation which is the largest travel agency in Japan. They offer tours for solo travellers, travellers in large groups, with families, and private tours as well. If you are looking for an unforgettable experience in Japan, schedule an online consultation today.



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