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Subtropical Japan

Enjoy the Island Delights of Okinawa and Ishigaki


An Okinawa rail. ©Yanbaruno Morino Yoru

Okinawa is a group of sun-kissed islands in the southern seas of Japan. It welcomes visitors with a lush natural environment and a culture of its own. As well as being a favorite destination for domestic travel, in recent years Okinawa has become popular with foreign tourists. Thanks to its subtropical location, it enjoys a mild climate all year round. It is the first place in Japan where cherry trees blossom each spring, and tropical flowers like the hibiscus adorn the islands through the seasons. Other attractions include breathtaking coral reefs inhabited by colorful schools of tropical fish and forests that shelter rare animals, such as the Okinawa rail.

Marine Sports and Ecotours
Situated at the southwestern end of the Japanese archipelago, Okinawa Prefecture comprises 160 islands large and small scattered across an area of sea stretching about 1,000 kilometers from east to west and about 400 kilometers from north to south. Until the early seventeenth century Okinawa was the home of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which actively traded with China and Southeast Asia from early times and developed a distinctive culture.


A manta ray. ©OCVB

Today Okinawa boasts a thriving tourism industry that draws on its historical background and rich natural surroundings. Resort hotels with private beaches line the shores of Okinawa Island, the heart of the prefecture, and other islands. Visitors have access to a wide variety of marine sports.

Other popular diversions include coral reef viewing in semi-submersible boats, whale watching, and tours to uninhabited islands. Okinawa is a diver's paradise, with many stunning underwater locations being available for enjoyment by divers of every level. There are also ecotours, including excursions to jungles and mangrove forests and sea kayaking trips to uninhabited islands.

Aside from its natural attractions, Okinawa has unique cultural experiences to offer that are markedly different from anything else in Japan. The traditional dances and music of the Ryukyu Kingdom are still very much alive, as exemplified by the sanshin, an Okinawan three-stringed musical instrument. The once-razed Shuri Castle, the former royal palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom on Okinawa Island, has been reconstructed; its remains, along with eight other related properties, have been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.


Kabira Bay on Ishigaki Island. ©)OCVB

Encounter with Manta Rays
Ishigaki Island, which is part of Okinawa Prefecture, lies at the far southwestern tip of the Japanese archipelago. While it is 410 kilometers from the city of Naha on Okinawa Island and nearly 2,000 kilometers from Tokyo, it lies less than 300 kilometers from Taipei, Taiwan. Distance notwithstanding, it is a popular destination for visitors to Okinawa. Just a short walk from the souvenir shops, restaurants, and markets of the island's town center are breathtaking unspoiled landscapes. There is Mt. Omoto, which, at 526 meters, is the highest peak in the prefecture. Ishigaki's mountains are wooded with subtropical trees, while sugarcane fields and pastures spread across the flatlands.

The ocean offers equally memorable views. Most notable are the blue coral reef of Shiraho, which is among the largest in the world, and Kabira Bay with its dazzling water of emerald green and marine and cobalt blue. Of course, island-goers can relax on the beach or, if they choose, go snorkeling or scuba diving. In fact, Ishigaki Island is one of the top diving areas in Japan, and especially lucky divers may come across manta rays over four meters long.


Goya (bitter melon). ©OCVB

The Secret of Longevity
Okinawa is also world renowned for the longevity of its people. One of the factors that are often attributed to the long lives of Okinawans is their traditional diet. Pork is frequently used, in simmered pork belly and numerous other dishes. Other famous specialties of Okinawa are champuru,a stir-fry of vegetables and tofu that is distinguished by the use of goya (bitter melon), and awamori, a distilled alcohol made from rice.

Okinawa has been gaining popularity with foreign travelers in recent years. In a survey that the Japan National Tourism Organization published in March 2008 listing the places in Japan that international tourists would recommend most to their friends, "Ishigaki Island and outlying islands" ranked fourth, while "northern Okinawa Island" came in sixth place. (March 2009)