Okinawa & the Southwest Islands
Collectively known as the Southwest Islands, the Nansei-shotō (南西諸島) comprises several chains of semitropical, coral-fringed isles far removed from the concerns of mainland life, where the slow pace and unique cultural heritage of the former Ryūkyū kingdom endures, offering a vibrant contrast to Japan's focus on modernity and technology.
Since WWII, Okinawa-hontō, the region's biggest island, has been appropriated by the US military for several key installations in the Pacific. Okinawa's bustling capital Naha and the sprawling resorts further north draw steady streams of shopping, sun-seeking and honeymooning tourists from neighboring Asian nations.
But seekers of nature and isolation will love the diversity and beauty of the smaller islands, from Yakushima's primeval forests and craggy peaks to the turquoise waters and soft sands of the Amami, Kerama and Miyako groups, and the spectacular coral, dense jungles and mangroves of the Yaeyamas, furthest south.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Okinawa & the Southwest Islands.
Just 4km north of the Hirara district of Miyakojima city, you'll find this little, archetypally tropical Japan beach, which lies at the bottom of a large sand dune (hence the name 'Sand Mountain Beach'). If you've only got one beach day to spend, or are getting around via bus, park yourself here. Find showers and toilets here, too.
Lovely beaches fringe every side of the island, but for sheer postcard-perfect beauty, it's hard to beat the 1km stretch of white sand on the northeast coast known as Nishibama Beach. It can be crowded in summer; if you want privacy, there are quieter beaches on the other sides of the island.
Approximately 1km southeast from the port (over the hill) is this stunning 700m stretch of white sand, fronted by clear, shallow water and a bit of coral. The beach is well developed for day trippers, with toilets, showers and food stalls. You can also rent snorkelling gear here (¥1000).
If you're looking to do a bit of snorkelling, head to this beach on the northwestern tip of the island. The beach is named after its star sand, which actually consists of the dried skeletons of marine protozoa.
This reconstructed castle was originally built in the 14th century and served as the administrative centre and royal residence of the Ryūkyū kingdom until the 19th century. Enter through the Kankai-mon (歓会門) and go up to the Hōshin-mon (奉神門), which forms the entryway to the inner sanctum of the castle. Visitors can enter the impressive Seiden (正殿), which has exhibits on the castle and the Okinawan royals.
Directly south of Naha in Kaigungo-kōen is the Former Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters, where 4000 men committed suicide or were killed as the Battle of Okinawa drew to its bloody conclusion. Only 250m of the tunnels are open, but you can wander through the maze of corridors, see the commander's final words on the wall of his room, and inspect the holes and scars in other walls from the grenade blasts that killed many of the men.
Located above a cave that served as an emergency field hospital during the closing days of the Battle of Okinawa, the Himeyuri Peace Museum is a haunting monument whose mission is to promote peace, driven by survivors and alumnae of the school. Here 240 female high-school students were pressed into service as nurses for Japanese military wounded. As American forces closed in, the students were summarily dismissed and, thus abandoned, most perished. Excellent, comprehensive interpretive signage is provided in English.
The centrepiece of Motobu's Ocean Expo Park (海洋博公園) is the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, which features the world's largest aquarium tank. The aquarium houses a wide variety of marine life, including whale sharks. Dolphins are also kept here, a practice widely acknowledged as harmful to the animals' health. The aquarium is on every visitor's checklist, so it's usually packed. From Nago, buses 65, 66 and 70 run directly to the park (¥860, 50 minutes).
On the southwest coast, beautiful Yonaha-Maehama is a 6km stretch of white sand that attracts a lot of families and young folk due to its shallow waters. It's a lovely beach, but it can get crowded, and the presence of an occasional jet ski is a drawback. It's just before the Kurima-Ōhashi bridge, on the north side. You can rent a wide range of beach gear, and even try out fly-boarding, from the rental outfitters by the car park.