Things You Absolutely Have to Do on Okinawa
Okinawa: An Introduction
Okinawa is a small island chain south of the main island of Japan. While they are considered Japanese, the Okinawans are still a distinct ethnicity from Japanese. Okinawans are of Chinese descent and they usually have slightly darker skin and are generally taller, in my opinion.
A good way to think about the Okinawa vs. Japan distinction is looking at Okinawa to Japan like Hawaii to the United States. It's a hot destination for the mainlanders looking for a tropical getaway. The main Okinawan Island is only 60 miles long and can be a as narrow as only five miles in some spots.
The residents there are known to live long lives and have one of the highest, if not the highest, life expectancies in the world. Some contribute this to the Okinawa diet and lifestyle. Okinawans eat mostly fish and vegetables and live what is referred to as a "life worth living" or a "life of purpose." Many Okinawans work well past their 50's doing things that many Americans stop doing in there 40's. The island is home to a large US military presence. So, English-speaking visitors will not have any trouble with asking for directions.
Looking for Things to Do in Okinawa?
Okinawa is a tropical paradise with very friendly people. In my three years of living there, I came nowhere near to doing everything that I wanted to. I didn't even come close to eating at all the restaurants near where I lived—and I ate out a lot. I've compiled some valuable information here about how to plan your visit to Okinawa, if you're lucky enough to go. So, if you get a chance to visit this gem in the Pacific, keep this list in mind. Have fun!
1. An Okinawa Must Eat: Sushi
Eat sushi in Okinawa. Do I really even have to say this? Okinawa is a part of Japan, after all.
There are a couple of good places but my favorites include:
- Yoshi's, a place near Kadena AB which is very popular among Americans. He has traveled a lot and by looks of his pictures on the wall met a lot of famous people.
- Zen Sushi is also good. It's cocated in the Sunabi Seawall area and it's a small but very good place and moderately priced.
- American Village. My favorite place is the sushi go round in the American Village near the Dragon Palace Arcade. Note: They have two sushi boats in the American Village but the other one is not good. It smells like old fish in there.
Sushi boats, otherwise known as a sushi go round, are a style of serving sushi where the small plates with prices corresponding/labeled near them are placed in conveyor belts and travel around the restaurant. You can just sit down and start grabbing. I like it because it's fast and cheap and the place is very relaxed and the people are very friendly.
2. Go Scuba Diving or Snorkeling in Okinawa
Okinawa is a premier scuba and snorkeling destination. There are several shops on the island to buy and rent gear and for you to get certified at. Most of these places can give you dive guides for places all over the island. In my opinion though, you don't have to go very far for your first dive—Sunabi Seawall has tons of spots and is within walking distance
3. Take Karate Lessons While You're in Okinawa
Okinawa is the birth place of Karate. Mr. Myagi from the Karate Kid was based on a real life Karate Master from Okinawa. Practicing Karate in Okinawa is like taking surfing lessons in Hawaii—it's a must do.
There are tons of schools and modernized arts like mixed martial arts are more popular, but I suggest looking into a traditional school. Sometimes they are hard to find. Karate is entwined in the culture and can't be separated. This is partly why there's no obvious advertising for where to go, people just know. The yellow pages and the Internet are a good place to start, but some of the more established schools may not be listed there.
A good place to start and if you are only on the island is Murasaki Mura in Yomitan village (the central area). It's an exact replica of an old Okinawan Village. Besides having a picturesque dojo that looks like a temple, the village has glass making, food, crafts, and many other activities and attractions. For a real martial arts experience you can sleep at the village at the dojo. It's rustic and basic but you can boast to friends how spiritual it was and how tough you are. Not to mention, you are close to a really great beach down a path behind the village. However, note that not many people go because there are no lifeguards or nets to keep the critters separate from the swimmers. It is still a cool place to have a bonfire, though.
Karate in Okinawa is different than karate in the US. Most dojo's in the US seem to take after Japanese traditions: strict, regimented, and formal. One of the instructors I was practicing with told me to stop bowing every time I came in and out. Just once in the beginning of class and at the end was sufficient. If I stepped off the floor for a break, there was no need to bow again. Also if I needed a break, it was fine to take one. As was being late or leaving early. Another instructor I was training with sometimes trained without a top on. Hey, it's hot! Casual was the key word.
4. Surf in Okinawa
Okinawa has not become an international destination for surfers yet, but it does remind me of Hawaii in that the water is aqua blue and so clear you can see right to the bottom.
Most places are reef breaks and the vibe is pretty cool, but some places can get crowded. Check with a local surf shop before you go out. There are some places that are considered very dangerous due to tidal conditions. The water gets very low during low tide—once, I saw a guy ride in a wave too far and knock all his fins off! Also, be careful because the reef is very sharp! I always wore shoes and yet I still have scars, not just on my feet but on my back from wiping out and hitting the reef.
Besides all that though, it was a very fun surf. During the wintertime, the best sides to go surfing are the west and south side. During the summer time, it's the east and north side. Typhoons aren't very consistent there, but when they are, it's so good! However, during then, crowds may be a problem. Thankfully, there are tons of breaks.
5. Visit Shuri Castle, Okinawa
Shuri Castle is located in Naha, the main and largest city in Okinawa. It was the royal seat for the once independent nation. It's a cool place and also fully restored (or maybe it never needed restoration.) I mostly enjoyed looking around and taking pictures.
Parking was easy but you are driving in Naha so there aren't a lot of big cars around.
6. Visit the Big Chicken in Okinawa
In Okinawa there's a giant chicken statue on the northern tip of the island looking north out over the ocean. I'm not sure why it's there, but we just had to go. It's great fun to take a road trip up there. You can stop off at cool mom and pop places along the way and venture off the beaten path into the unknown.
Once you get north of Nago on 58 there really is nothing except beautiful country mixed with ocean. Take the expressway as far north as you can, then jump on to 58.
7. Attend the World's Largest Tug of War
The world's largest tug of war is held annually in Naha. It marks the start of a festival dating back to the 17th century. Anyone can participate, so get there early to secure a spot. The contest lasts thirty minutes and the challenge is to pull the other team a total of fifteen meters. If neither side pulls the other the fifteen meters, then whichever side has pulled the other the furthest wins.
8. Visit a Love Motel in Okinawa
Love motels are cheesy and themed, pay-by-the-hour motels for you and your significant other to have fun in. If not that, it's just interesting to check out with a group of friends. Love motels are common aw Okinawan families tend to have several generations living in the same household, so alone time with your partner was and is often at a premium.
Enter the love motel, where a young couple, or horny teenagers, or stressed-out parents can go and have time time with each other. They are also ultra discreet, so you will never actually be seen or see another person, including even the staff. The first time I went to one, my wife and I had a private garage for our room. The room was a three-story apartment with a swimming pool and hot tub on the second floor. You can order food and have it delivered through a special door so you never see the delivery man. Some have themes like the volcano room, or the moon room.
Costs range but for the most part it's about $40-60 bucks an hour. Complete with all the luxurious you would expect from a regular hotel with some special channels on the TV for added mood . . . if you like that sort of thing, of course.
9. Sing Karaoke in Okinawa
I really wasn't a big fan of karaoke until I got to Japan, but it's actually very fun! You also get to be up on stage. Not a good singer? No problem.Just pick a funny song. People tend to join in with you if you suck and/or are funny. The really good people just get a quiet audience, since nobody wants to ruin a good performance with a comedic chiming-along.
I highly suggest the Keystone Bar on the Gate 2 street off of Kadena AB. It's small, so if you go there with ten or so people you'll own the place! Say hi to Papa for me.
10. Drink Habu Sake on Okinawa
Habu sake is liqueur with a pit viper in it. It is often thought of as a test of courage to drink. I was never courageous enough, though, but it's a very unique thing to try if you're on the island. While I never did it myself, it sure looks badass though.
11. Visit the Keramas, Okinawa
Visit the Keramas. Though I flew over it, I am very disappointed that I did not get a chance to actually visit.
My wife, on the other hand, was fortunate enough to spend an entire day on Tokashiki (the picture at the beginning of this article.) You need to take a ferry from Naha which take about an hour. Besides being a awesome place to visit, the Keramas are supposed to be one of the best places to dive and snorkel.
12. Go to Hiji Falls
Hiji Falls is a cool tropical falls on the northern part of the island. Don't swim in it, especially after a heavy rain. You will get leptospirosis. It will be tough to resist because the hike to the falls can be hot and when you get there the water just looks so inviting. The ocean isn't far though, so go there instead. Take the expressway north as far as you can go then take 58. Look for signs.
13. Visit the Chumauri Aquarium on Okinawa
The Chumauri Aquarium on Okinawa is the second largest aquarium behind the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. It has a whale shark tank and a couple of manmade beaches on the property. Kinda pricey but worth it, especially if you've never seen whale sharks.
14. Swim with Whale Sharks in Okinawa
You can sign up for the whale shark dives at the Torii Beach Scuba Locker, which is the only MWR facility on Okinawa to offer this service. A single dive costs $95, and two dives cost $130.
During weekends, whale shark dive tours depart the Scuba Locker at 8 a.m. and 12 p.m. On weekdays, departure is at 9 a.m. For further information on diving with whale sharks, call 644-4290. Here's the catch though—you need a government ID/base access to get on Torii station, so look into this before you show up without it.