Unlike the rest of Japan’s 47 prefectures, Okinawa has a different climate and distinct cultural practices and customs. Until 1879, this chain of islands was part of a separate kingdom called Ryukyu. Previously, it had tributary relationships with China and the Tokugawa shogunate as part of the Satsuma prefecture now known as Kagoshima. Later, it officially became one of Japan’s prefectures after several military campaigns. Today, it’s a bustling tourist destination partly because of its sub-tropical climate and the idyllic locations, and partly because the main island has frequent flights going to and from the major cities of Japan.
As the main island in this little archipelago, Okinawa Honto has the largest number of residents and businesses, especially since the American bases were located there. Naha City, which is the capital of the prefecture, features Shurijo Castle – a centuries-old castle that served as the administrative seat of the Ryukyu territory before it became a prefecture. Around two kilometers down south of the castle is the Shikina-en Garden with native Okinawan shrubs and trees flourishing around a central pond. The buildings served as extensions of the Shuri palace and became the second home of the Ryukyu royal family and their kinsmen.
In downtown Naha, the international road or Kokusaidori runs for at least two kilometers straight. This main street is lined with restaurants, bars, cafes, hotels, small novelty shops, and large department stores. More shops are found in the Heiwadori, Mutsumidori and Ichiba Hondori arcades, which branch off the main street halfway through it. At the end of Heiwa Street is another shopping area commonly known as the Tsuboya Yachimun Street where pottery stores and ceramic art galleries line the paved road made of coral and limestone.
Tropical Spots and Beautiful Beaches
Located farther down south are the Sakishima Islands, which are divided into smaller groups of islands, Miyako and Yaeyama. Miyako, the biggest island in the eastern part of this tropical archipelago, is the site of the local Strongman Triathlon held every April. One of Japan’s beautiful beaches, Maebama, is found on the south-west corner of Miyako Island.
Tourists can lounge on the beach, play a game of beach volleyball, or engage in diving or snorkeling during their stay. Miyako’s watering holes serve Orion, which is the main island’s beer, and awamori, a local brew with as much as 30% alcohol per volume. If possible, visitors should avoid the poisonous Habu jellyfish, which appears between the months of June and October.
Meanwhile, on the southwestern-most part of Okinawa are the Yaeyama Islands, which have the same climate as a tropical rainforest. Its most popular spots include Ishigaki and Iriomote islands. Iriomote is the largest of the island group with thick jungles and swamp-laden mangroves. It’s not as densely populated as Ishigaki, which has a seaport and an airport.