Okinawa, Japan sits off the coast of the mainland and is a prefecture divided into several small islands. Rich with ancient Ryukyu culture, some of the most famous cuisine on the planet, robustly blue ocean waters and cozy, lavish accommodations, Okinawa is a top destination in Japan to put on your travel bucket list. So if you’re heading to this paradise for the very first time, these cities and villages will give a taste of true Okinawa.
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Why Stay Here: Picture-perfect beaches and the best cuisine, particularly beef, you’ll ever taste.
Top Hotels: Ishigaki Seaside Hotel | Hotel East China Sea | Hotel Miyahira | Ishigakijima Beach Hotel Sunshine | Grandvrio Resort Ishigakijima Grandvrio Garden
Ishigaki might be the most mesmerizing island to visit within the Okinawan Prefecture. In addition to being totally stunning, Ishigaki houses rare blue coral in its national park, mangroves excellent for complex kayaking, traditional entertainment and a squirrel monkey park. Several luxury resorts are available to visitors, and you better believe the restaurant scene here is on point. The island is famed for what is likely the purest beef on earth, which is so pristine it can be enjoyed raw over rice.
Miyakojima, or Miyako Island, is a large, relatively flat island in comparison to other Okinawan Prefecture lands. Electric blue waters wrap around the snowy white beaches and sugar cane fields and lure in visitors with its flawless scuba diving terrain. While it’s all about resorts, great food and fun in the sun in Miyako, other fascinating sites are sprinkled amongst the island, including ancient graves, a lighthouse and scenic bridge.
Higashi is well known for its springtime Azalea festival, celebrating the 50,000 shrubs that sweep over the village. While Higashi Azalea Eco Park hosts the event, travelers can camp or rent a cabin throughout the rest of the year and dine at an on-site Okinawan eatery. Overall, Higashi offers lush landscape and gardens, in addition to otherworldly Sakishima Sappanwood trees. You can even come to the area to pick fresh strawberries.
Cherry blossom trees bloom early in Okinawa, and Nago holds a festival every year in January. Numerous attractions, like the quirky Pineapple Park and Orion Happy Park, reside here. Orion beer is specific to Okinawa and is certainly a big treat for those with an affinity for fermented beverages. Great for family adventures and exploring the outdoors, you’ll never run out of things to do.
Onna houses several big hotels and newly added resorts while boasting an abundance of authentic restaurants and shops. Nearby Cape Manzano and Cape Maeda provide Instagram-worthy views of the ocean from rocky cliff viewing areas. Divers will find Onna to be a particularly awesome place to stay, as some exciting scuba, and even snorkeling caves and reefs are right off the shore.
Kunigami’s ancient roots are still showcased in Kunigami to this day. Locals focus on agriculture, long beach days and dwelling in akagawara homes. A true sense of community can be found here, and fewer tourists trek up to this northern part of the island. With lush jungle and mountains encapsulating the quiet nook, hiking is a must, whether to further explore Mount Yonaha or navigate to Hiji Waterfall on the river. Needless to say, adventurists will love exploring rare bird species or canoeing—it’s perfect for escaping more commercial areas.
Nakijin is most notable for its castle ruins that date back to the beginning of the Ryukyu reign, which has been labeled as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The expansive stone walls from the kingdom span over the vibrant green hills for a noteworthy contrast. In Nakijin Village, travelers can stay in a traditional Japanese home, but modern accommodations exist as well. Along with signature blue beaches calling you to try paddleboarding, this village is known for its unbelievably flavorful mangos, which often are piled atop sweet shaved ice.
Why Stay Here: Taketomi boasts traditional homes and water buffalo wagon rides.
Top Hotels: HOSHINOYA Taketomi Island
Taketomi takes visitors back to a different time period with its village of period homes which now often serve as shops, restaurants and overnight accommodations. Few cars traverse the sandy roads, and a ferry must be taken from Ishigaki to reach the “frozen in time” island. Aside from searching for hand made souvenirs and slurping real deal noodle dishes from the simplistic Okinawa Noodle Restaurant Takenoko, water buffalo carriage rides are amongst the highlights. Hop aboard the covered wooden wagon for a stroll around the village while guides sing and play music on a sanshin, an Okinawan guitar with a very distinct sound.
Kudaka Island is believed by natives to be where the first gods descended, and much of the island is considered highly sacred. However, visitors can ferry over and tour the grounds by bike while stopping for a refreshment at the market, which is situated in a small traditional house. Sea snake soup is an age-old native dish still prepared in Kudaka if you’re feeling brave, and the beaches on the island have special star-shaped sand granules. Hotels closest to Kudaka are in Naha.