Singaporebrides | Editors' Notes

August 2016

11 Fun Things To Do In Okinawa For A Unique Island Vacation

Heard of Okinawa and not sure if it’s worth visiting? Here are 11 reasons why Okinawa should be your next travel destination.

Mention Okinawa and I bet all your diver friends will start to wax lyrical about the clear, blue waters, arguably one of the best alongside Galapagos and Palau. It’s true; the sub-tropical climate at Okinawa makes diving all year round accessible and is the favourite weekend holiday for Taiwanese and Hongkongers. This laid-back island, with its wonderful beaches, is like Bali or Phuket to the island-hopping Singaporean, except, it’s Japanese.

The Okinawa Prefecture, just south of mainland Japan, actually only became part of Japan in 1872. They have different ethnicities, speak very different dialects, and are also very different in terms of culture and cuisine. American chef, author and TV personality Anthony Bourdain, who visited Okinawa for his Parts Unknown series, said recently in an interview that “Okinawa is so different from the rest of Japan; it’s almost a different country.”

Ryukyu Okinawa

The Okinawa mainland is the largest island making up the Ryukyu chain of islands, stretching from the southern tip of Japan to the northern tip of Taiwan. In fact, the Ryukyu Kingdom, which ruled the islands independently from 15th to the 19th century, had more in common with China than isolationist Japan. Okinawa means “rope in the open sea”, an apt description for this chain of islands.

Military Okinawa

And that’s not all. After the end of World War II, the U.S Military established several bases on the Ryukyu islands. Today, about half of the 50,000 U.S. troops deployed in Japan are based in Okinawa. Imagine what the weekends must be like! If I had to use a dish to describe Okinawa and its culture, it would have to be the Chanpuru, an Okinawa-style stir fry. It typically consists of tofu with some kind of vegetable and a meat, usually goya (bitter melon) and Spam (luncheon meat). The term Chanpuru is also derived from the word campur (pronounced cham-poor), which means “mixed” in Bahasa.

SilkAir Business Class

Now that you know a little more about Okinawa—also incidentally where Karate originated—you need to know what you can do (And eat! And buy!) on the island. We were fortunately invited by the Okinawa Prefectural Government to visit the island, via one of SilkAir’s chartered flights there in June. We found out what our Taiwanese friends are always raving about.

1. Shop Like Mad Along Kokusai-dori

You will start and end your trip from Naha, Okinawa’s capital and largest city. Naha is also where Okinawa’s most popular shopping strip, Kokusai-dori, or International Avenue, is. This 1.6km stretch of shopping and eating is where you will find most of your omiyage (souvenirs) as soon as you arrive or just before you leave the city. There are also many small eateries serving Okinawan dishes, as well as international coffee chains and rowdy bars. Most Sundays, this road is blocked off for pedestrians only. During our trip, we saw brightly dressed street performers, food vendors, and a mini traditional folk festival. However, it is just as lively during the weekdays, especially at night.

Kokusaidori Naha OkinawaFamilies out on the pedestrians-only Kokusai-dori on Sunday Kokusaidori Naha OkinawaMany photo-taking opportunities in the day on a weekend Kokusaidori Naha OkinawaMultiple floors of 24-hr shopping at the famous Don Quixote (Donki for short) store Kokusaidori Naha OkinawaThe crowd on a typical weekday night

Access: Kokusai-dori stretches from the Naha Bus Terminal to the Makishi Station on the Yui Rail, but is a (short!) 1.6km walk.

2. Buy Seafood Like A Local

At the centre of Kokusai-dori’s bustling shopping arcade at Heiwa-dori, one of the many roofed malls with stalls selling everything under the sun, sits the Makishi Public Market. In this indoor market, half of the stalls are dedicated to pork and beef found locally and regionally. Prepare for sightings of vacuum packed pig’s trotters and skins of whole pig heads. On the other side, you will find ice chests of different kinds of fish and crustaceans caught from the local waters, much like the wet markets in Singapore. Locals buy the parrotfish, groupers, slipper lobsters and tiger prawns home for their own consumption, while tourists have their selections sent to the food stalls on the second floor food court to have them prepared immediately. If you’re really adventurous with food, try the sea snake soup from here.

Okinawa Kokusaidori MallEndless shopping indoors at Kokusai-dori, Naha Okinawa Makishi Public MarketVacuum-packed pig’s trotters Okinawa Makishi Public MarketWater tanks filled with all sorts of seafood Okinawa Makishi Public MarketThe escalator leading to the food court upstairs where you can sit down for freshly prepared sashimi or cooked dishes

Address: Matsuo 2-10-1, Naha, Okinawa Prefecture
Hours: 8 am to 8 pm
Access: The market is located in the middle of the Heiwa-dori shopping arcade along Hokusai-dori

3. Try Okinawan Cuisine

The food in Okinawa differs quite significantly from the Japanese because of its unique history and climate, and is influenced by China, Southeast Asia, Japan, and the United States. The three main dishes to try are the Goya Chanpuru (bittergourd stir fry), Okinawa Soba (made with wheat instead of buckwheat), and Taco (not tako) Rice, which has ground beef, lettuce, tomatoes and salsa served over rice.

Almost every traditional meal you have in Okinawa will also consist of several side dishes, such as the rafute (braised pork belly!), mimiga (thinly cut, steamed pig’s ear seasoned with ponzu), umibudo (sea grapes soaked in vinegar), and tofuyo (fermented tofu).

Pork is king here in Okinawa, whereas beef is more widely consumed in mainland Japan. Almost every part of the pig is used here, and as our tour guide liked to put it, “We use everything but its voice.” If you’re a fan of pork belly, you’ll do well in Okinawa.

Okinawa Goya Bitter MelonOkinawans think that consuming goya helps in achieving longevity. They do have the longest life expectancy, by the way. Okinawa Umibudo Sea GrapesUmibudo looks like tiny grapes, but tastes like very crunchy fish roe Okinawa Pork BellyYou’ll find pork in almost every restaurant in Okinawa Okinawa SobaOki soba tastes and looks more like udon and makes a hearty meal. (Ashibiuna)

Address: 2-13 Shuritonokura, Naha, Okinawa Prefecture
Hours: 12 pm to 3 pm, 5 pm to 11 pm
Access: 10 min walk from Shuri Station on the Yui Rail

4. Experience Izakayas Okinawa Style

A good place to start off your food exploration in Okinawa would be the izakaya. These casual dining places often have a wide assortment of food and drinks, so you can order to share and discover interesting dishes. Depending on the establishment you visit, you may get to sit on tatami mats and dine from low tables, Japanese style. Don’t be intimated by the menu–ask for an English menu and order a few items each time so you don’t get overwhelmed by the sheer number of items they have. Some izakayas also offer live Okinawan music, especially in tourist districts like Kokusai-dori in Naha.

Okinawa IzakayaBench-style seating surrounded by sake Okinawa IzakayaThis izakaya has awesome retro decor and paraphernalia Okinawa IzakayaBe entertained by live Okinawan music while eating

Address: 1-1-9 Maejima, Naha, Okinawa Prefecture
Hours: 3.30 pm to 1 am
Access: 1 min walk from Miebashi Station on the Yui Rail

Address: Makishi 2-7-25, Naha, Okinawa Prefecture
Hours: 11 am to midnight
Access: 1 min walk from Makishi Station on the Yui Rail

5. Seek Out Hidden Cafes Only Locals Know About

Take a detour off the main shopping street and wander into the backlanes. Rent a car and drive a little farther from your usual route. Hiding well amongst residential homes and, sometimes, less developed parcels of land, are atmospheric little cafes that serve home-cooked style dishes that are appealing both to the eyes and to the tastebuds. Unlike the izakayas mentioned above, the menu is much smaller so do a little research if you’re fussy with food. However, the views and ambience usually more than make up for it.

Okinawa CafeA private garden blocks out the rest of the world Okinawa CafeA healthy fruit bowl Okinawa CafeSteps leading down to a cafe that looks like a Japanese house Okinawa CafeInstagram moments at the cafe Okinawa CafeTatami seating in a quaint little cafe that requires quite a drive inland Okinawa CafeSet meals give you the best of everything

Address: Tsuboya 1-13-19, Naha, Okinawa Prefecture
Hours: 8.30 am to 10.30 am
Access: 5 min walk from Makishi Station on the Yui Rail

Address: 429-1 Bise, Motobu, Okinawa Prefecture
Hours: 11.30 am to 7.30 pm
Access: By car only

Address: 2511-2 Zakimi Itabarihara, Yomitan-son, Okinawa Prefecture
Hours: 11.30 am to 5.30 pm
Access: By car only

6. Enjoy the Beautiful Waters yet Stay Dry

The best way to enjoy the island is by driving, so plan to rent a car at the airport. Since you’re on an island, you know you can get gorgeous views as you drive along the coast from south of the island, where Naha, the capital and airport is, to north of the island, where it is less touristy and more scenic. If you don’t dive, there are still many ways to enjoy the sea, so don’t give up just yet.

Okinawa Nirai Kanai BridgeThe Nirai Bridge and the Kanai Bridge connect in twists and turns, overlooking Kudaka and Komaka Islands Okinawa Busena Marine ParkTake a trip on a glass-bottomed boat for fishes galore Okinawa Diamond BeachDiamond Beach is quiet and secluded, good for photo ops Okinawa Cape ManzamoFacing the East China Sea, Cape Manzamo is beautiful at sunset and you can share the view with the “elephant” structure Okinawa Kouri Ocean TowerAtop the Kouri Ocean Tower sits the Bell of Happiness, a popular spot for couples

Address: Aza-Chinen, Chinen, Nanjo-shi, Okinawa
Access: By car only

Address: 1-1744 Kise, Nago, Okinawa Prefecture
Hours: 9 am to 5 pm
Access: By car only

Address: 100 Seragaki, Onna Village, Okinawa Prefecture

Address: Onna-son, Kunigami-gun, Okinawa Prefecture
Access: 90 min from Naha Bus Terminal

Address: 538 Kouri, Nakijin, Okinawa Prefecture
Hours: 9 am to 6 pm
Access: By car only

7. Make Your Own Souvenirs

It’s easy to buy souvenirs anywhere in Okinawa, especially along Kokusai-dori. Even if you have not done any research on Okinawa, just a 10-minute walk down the street and it will become very apparent what the most popular souvenirs are. The top items being bought by the Taiwanese and Japanese tourists are Okinawa beni-imo (sweet potato) snacks, Okinawa brown sugar cubes, Ryukyu glassware unique to Okinawa, Okinawa Awamori (alcoholic beverage), shisa (stone guardians) figurines and Okinawan textiles. In fact, there are a couple of places on the island where you can go to make your own!

Okinawa textilesCreate your own coral patterns using fossilised corals known as bingata dyeing Okinawa textilesYou can make them into pouches, coasters, even T-shirts Okinawa Beni ImoShape and pipe your own beni-imo tarts at Okashi Goten, a popular souvenir store Okinawa Beni ImoPut your goodies into customised boxes

Address: 1-54, Shuriyamagawacho, Naha, Okinawa Prefecture
Hours: 9 am to 6 pm
Access: Take the Yui Rail to Shuri Station, then take the bus to Yamakawa

OKASHI GOTEN (Diamond Beach)
Andress: 100 Seragaki, Onna Village, Okinawa Prefecture
Hours: 8.30 am to 7.30 pm
Access: By car only

8. Do Touristy Things at Places of Interest

There are actually many tourist attractions in Okinawa, ranging from historical sites to mountain treks to theme parks. Here are a few that you shouldn’t miss.

Okinawa Shuri CastleTake a picture under the Shureimon at the historical Shuri Castle that can be seen on the commemorative 2000 yen note Okinawa WorldThe 300,000-year-old Gyokusendo Cave at Okinawa World hosts spectacular rock formations Okinawa Churaumi AquariumSee how many whale sharks you can find in the main tank at Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium

Address: 1-2, Shuri-Kinjo, Naha, Okinawa Prefecture
Hours: 8.30 am to 7 pm
Access: 15 min walk from Shuri Station on the Yui Rail

Address: 1336 Tamagusuku, Maekawa, Nanjo City, Okinawa Prefecture
Hours: 9 am to 6 pm
Access: 60 min by bus from Naha Bus Terminal

Address: 424 Ishikawa, Motobu, Okinawa Prefecture
Hours: 8.30 am to 6.30 pm
Access: 3 hours by Yanbaru Express Bus to Ocean Expo Park

9. Age Your Own Awamori

Awamori is an alcoholic beverage unique to Okinawa that any visitor should taste at least once. It is given such a prestige that many buy these as gifts for festive occasions, and the recipients would keep them, sometimes for several years, as awamori gets better as it ages. During some wedding ceremonies in Okinawa, the families of the bride and groom would present their own aged awamori and then mix them into a new “blend” as a symbol of the two families joining together. The blend then becomes the new family treasure.

Chuko Awamori distillery produces high quality awamori, as well as their own ceramic urns to preserve and age the awamori. In addition, they can also provide customers with customised labels and engravings. The distillery, as well as the pottery studio, is open to public. If you want to, you can buy a bottle of awamori (known as kusu if aged more than three years) here and keep it in their cavern for aging, then return in 10 years to collect it!

Okinawa AwamoriAwamori is distilled from water, black koji yeast-culture and Thai rice, and found only in Okinawa Chuko Awamori OkinawaChuko Awamori makes their own pottery to age their awamori Chuko Awamori OkinawaReady awamori aging in the wooden cellar Chuko Awamori OkinawaMost customers choose to leave their purchases at the distillery for aging

Address: 132 Nakachi, Tomigusuku, Okinawa Prefecture
Hours: 9 am to 5 pm
Access: 10 min from the airport, by car only

10. Splurge on Luxurious Hotels and Resorts

There are all kinds of hotels in Okinawa, ranging from the budget, to the hotel chains, to luxurious resorts. We’ve visited and stayed in a few of them during our trip, and some of them are really unforgettable. Depending on your budget and purpose of visit, you’ll definitely be able to find one that will make your stay memorable. On our last night, we stayed at a premium onsen resort that is very popular with the locals!

ANA InterContinental Manza Beach ResortThe private beach at ANA InterContinental Manza Beach Resort popular with families ANA InterContinental Manza Beach ResortMost rooms come with a view of the beach or the nearby Cape Manzamo Uza Terrace Beach Club VillasThose looking for privacy stay at the luxurious Uza Terrace Beach Club Villas Uza Terrace Beach Club VillasThey have very spacious one- to two-bedroom villas with private pools Ryukyu Onsen Senagajima HotelThe rooms at the Ryukyu Onsen Senagajima Hotel come with adorable spa outfits that you can wear to the onsen downstairs Ryukyu Onsen Senagajima HotelIf you’re lucky, you get a room with a view of the airport runway, which is gorgeous at night

ANA InterContinental Manza Beach Resort
Address: 2260 Aza-Seragaki, Onna, Okinawa

Address: 630-1 Uza, Yomitan-son, Nakagami, Okinawa Prefecture

Address: 174-5 Aza-Senaga, Tomigusuku, Okinawa Prefecture

11. Get Married in Okinawa

If you’re looking for an island to get married on that is not in Southeast Asia, Okinawa is probably one of the best choices. You can get your chapel AND beach wedding at the same time, do a bit of diving and souvenir shopping, then take off to mainland Japan for your honeymoon. We’ve got that all worked out for you! For a list of wedding chapels in Okinawa, check out our feature here. You can even book them from Watabe Weddings‘ office in Singapore!

Aqua Grace Wedding ChapelMost wedding chapels in Okinawa have their own beach and unique views Aqua Grace Wedding ChapelEach chapel also has a unique design with meaningful details Coralvita Wedding ChapelA view of Cape Manzamo and Okinawa’s Meoto Iwa (Married Rocks)

In case these 11 reasons aren’t enough for you, here’s a video by Felicia Toh of what we did in Okinawa. We had a great introduction to the island, thanks to the Okinawa Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Okinawa Prefectural Government office in Singapore.

Credit: All images by Evonne of for SingaporeBrides.