The island prefecture of Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost state, has a climate, a lifestyle and a culture that is completely different to anything else you’ll find in this fascinating country. These 11 unusual things to do in Okinawa are the most un-Japanese Japanese experiences you’ll find.
Mrs Romance and I love travelling in Japan. It’s one of those countries that keep on surprising you right up to the day you fly home. And Okinawa has surprised us even more than that.
Okinawa Island is the largest in the prefecture’s 160-strong archipelago, and goes from being a built-up city vibe and quite westernised in the south to a wild jungle scene the further north you go.
Perhaps because we were staying on the northwestern coast, Mrs Romance and I were able to find the more unusual things to do easier than if we’d been in the capital Naha City.
If you are also looking at staying in the north or you want to explore more of the island than just Naha, hiring a car is essential. If you’re nervous about driving in Japan, here’s our post on doing it safely.
We highly recommend getting out of the cities and seeing what else this fascinating part of Japan has to offer. It’s like nowhere else in the country… perhaps even the world.
If you’re looking for more inspiration and info on travelling in Japan, check out our other posts here.
11 unusual things to do in Okinawa
1. Look out over Cape Hedo
Okinawa Island is the most northerly island in the prefecture. And Cape Hedo is the most northerly point of the island. Standing at this cape you are the closest you can be to the rest of Japan.
The rough yet crystal blue seas crash against this rugged coastline and adds drama to the spectacle. The pathways around the cape lead you down to some more amazing outlooks and hidden shrines. Well worth the trip.
2. Explore the broken bridges
Route 58, which runs from Naha Airport all the way up the west coast to Cape Hedo, is an amazing road, but only after a few renovations. In the northwest especially, you can see where the old 58 used to run, including a couple of blocked up road tunnels and crumbled bridges.
You can park up near the bridges and walk along the cliff edge to explore the remains of these bridges, with weeds and grass growing out of cracks and gaps in the asphalt. It’s an eerie but fascinating perspective of the island’s modern history.
3. See cherry blossoms in winter
Being so far south, the famous Sakura or cherry blossoms, which places like Kyoto are famous for, bloom a full 2 months earlier in Okinawa than anywhere else in Japan.
Come here in January and February (there should even be a few left in early March) to see these beautiful flowers before anyone else in the country. Even better, double down with a week in the north for ski season first.
4. Check out the karst and strange rocks of Dai Sekirinzan
Dai Sekirinzan is a national park in the north of Okinawa Island that geologists believe is the oldest part of the island. It’s a limestone plateau that would have emerged from ocean millions of years ago and has since eroded to form a range of intricate rock formations.
Apart from the rocks, there are superb views from a promontory, a dramatic mountain of rock that seems to change colour before your eyes and a jungle passage that leads to a stunning glade of banyan trees.
This is also known as one of Japan’s ‘Power Spots’; a place of revered spiritual relevance. I can well understand that – it’s certainly a special place.
The hikes through this park are well worth doing. Each route is easy to follow, marked with different coloured rope and mostly on board walk decking. In true Japanese style there are even covered stations with spare umbrellas to use if you get caught and a minibus drives you up to the starting point from the car park.
5. Hike to Hiji Waterfall
The Hiji Waterfall is the highest waterfall in the prefecture at 26 metres and is definitely worth the 3km hike along the river to the base of the falls. There’s a very cool Indiana Jones Style suspension bridge slung across the river or you can even trek through the river itself.
There are a lot of steps here though, so be prepared for a workout and bring water if it’s a hot day.
6. Try sea grapes and bitter melon
The people of Okinawa are famous for their longevity, which some say is down to their diet. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is true; some of the dishes specific to Okinawa are pretty special.
For us, we really enjoyed the umi-budo or ‘sea grapes’, which are actually strings of seaweed. This is also known as seaweed caviar because those little green bubbles pop between your teeth and have a sort of creamy texture.
Also the bitter melon or goya, which is specific to Okinawa, is definitely something to try. It’s full of nutrients but the bitterness often puts people off. For us, it’s the perfect accompaniment to amawari – the local spirit similar to sake.
7. Spot the Shisa
These mythological creatures are deeply connected to the culture of the Ryukyu – the original natives of Okinawa long before it was taken into Japan in the 1870s. Shisa are often found in pairs, one with its mouth open to ward off evil spirits the other with its mouth closed to keep the good within.
You’ll see them on the roofs of people’s houses, on gateposts, even on vending machines, and they’re very much an Okinawa oddity. This post from Japan Info goes into much more detail and tells some of the tails of the Shisa and its legend.
8. Try Okinawa coffee
We were very surprised to find good coffee in Okinawa, but don’t expect cappuccinos or lattes. It’s more often made in a drip filter or a press and I’d recommend not adding milk.
Like this funny little place in the northeast of Okinawa Island, there are farms here growing and roasting their own coffee.
9. Explore ancient castle ruins
Thanks to the long history of the Ryukyu people and the relatively small population of Okinawa, there are still quite a few ancient ruins left scattered about the island.
One of the oldest still remaining is Nakijin Castle, built in the early 1300s. The scalloped outer walls are characteristic of Ryukyuan castles as you’ll see from other ruins like Nakagusuku Castle and Katsuren Castle but each one has its individual history and charm.
10. Find the shrines
Because of the indigenous Ryukyuan religion that followed the old ways – of worshipping natural elements like trees and rocks and the wind – many places especially in the less-developed northern area of Okinawa Island are sacred places called utaki.
These special places – often referred to even in present-day as Power Spots – have shrines built on or near them. They’re often simple stone tablets with writing carved into them. Locals will often talk about places like Cape Hado and Dai Sekirinzan as having power and will ask you if you felt it. It’s actually quite lovely.
11. Hit the beach
One thing Japan isn’t exactly famous for is its beaches, though there are quite a lot of them all over the country. However, the best ones have to be here in Okinawa Prefecture. The sand is incredibly white, the East China Sea is warm and the amount of marine life here is remarkable.
The water around the coast of the Okinawan islands is so blue we couldn’t quite get over it. Even on cloudy, rainy days the sea seems to glow with a crystal blue light that seems to come from under the water. Fanciful stuff, but that’s what it looks like.
Okinawa is certainly its own entity in a country that’s already so unique. But if you want the elegance and culture a Japanese holiday offers coupled with the laid-back nature of an island destination and beautiful beaches, this is the place to come.
Have you ever been to Okinawa? Would you like to hear more about Okinawa and its unusual culture? Talk to us in the comments!