Updated: Jun 2, 2022
Ah, Okinawa! Also known as “the Hawaii of Japan”, Okinawa has a rich history, dating back to the early Neolithic era. Starting with the arrival of Jomon hunter gatherers, the archipelago received a number of Chinese and Japanese influences for over ten thousand years. Located east of China, south of Japan and separating the East China Sea and Pacific Ocean, the Ryukyu Islands were a melting pot between the two cultures, until Japan conquered and renamed the Okinawa Prefecture in 1879.
By the end of World War II, the United States was gradually seizing and establishing military bases in the Pacific Islands held by Japan. One of the longest and most arduous conflicts, the Battle of Okinawa, also known as “the Typhoon of Steel”, was the final battle fought in the Pacific Theater. Eventually, the Allied Forces claimed victory over the island, but not without a cost. The battle claimed the lives of an estimated 150,000 Okinawan civilians, half the island’s population. The battle devastated the island’s infrastructure, agriculture, and economy, and yet, the island was fortunately able to rebuild itself, thanks to the resilience and fortitude of its people.
Since then, Okinawa has become a major tourist spot and a hub for United States Forces Japan personnel. In the last seventy years, Okinawa’s population has more than quadrupled from 350,000 to around 1.5 million. According to the Okinawa Prefecture Department of Culture Tourism and Sports, Okinawa welcomed over 10 million tourists in 2019, a record growth in tourist arrivals for the seventh consecutive year. So, if you are interested in visiting the Hawaii of Japan, then why not visit some of the most spectacular sites on the archipelago? Based on cultural impact (aaaaand some past experiences), here are my top five picks for places to visit in Okinawa!
5. Nago Pineapple Park
Located in downtown Nago in northern Okinawa, the attraction is a charming theme park that gives visitors a chance to travel across pineapple gardens in small automatic vehicles. Afterwards, visitors can visit a souvenir shop to try delectable and intriguing pineapple items. Pineapples were once one of Okinawa’s most cultivated products, but with the influx of inexpensive pineapples overseas, Okinawan varieties suffered. Thus, parks like Nago Pineapple Park started showcasing their pineapples as a tourist attraction and as a part of Okinawan history. Now, the park is one of the largest attractions in Okinawa and draws in thousands of people every year to show off the importance of Okinawa’s pineapples!
I visited the park for the first time back in late 2014 with my family, and was instantly serenaded with an insanely catchy song: “Pa-pa, pa-pa, pa-pa, pa-pa pine-apple…” This upbeat air was carried with us from the moment we entered the park to our soothing joyride on pineapple vehicles. The cool breeze along with the refreshing shade of the jungle-like environment was a well-needed escape from the sweltering Okinawan sun. The self-driving buggy, similar in stature to a golf cart, was decked out with a mp3 player and a speaker to play music and explain each site as the buggy passed them. Honestly, it felt like Jurassic Park. But instead of stopping to look at the T-Rex, we were stopping to look at pineapples. After the ten minute ride, we had learned so much about the history of pineapples in Okinawa, their cultivation, and their unique subtleties from other pineapple varieties. The best part of the attraction was the sampling at the souvenir shop. There were so many pineapple products, from dried pineapple to pineapple chocolate. I specifically remember waddling up to sample stations and trying the pineapple pound cake. Then I would get back in line again... and again… and again! So shameless, I know…
4. Peace Memorial Park
Located at the southern tip of Okinawa, this memorial holds a solemn reminder of the devastation that the Typhoon of Steel inflicted upon the archipelago. In the Summer of 1944, the Okinawans were enslaved by the Imperial Japanese Army. Many civilians, children, women, the elderly, sacrificed themselves instead of fortifying and desecrating their home for the Japanese. Southern Okinawa was home to the most devastating conflicts of the battle, and thus, many memorials were built in proximity to the south.
Also known as Peace Prayer Park, Peace Memorial Park was a multinational monument established in 1975 and dedicated to remembering the fallen in the Battle of Okinawa. The Cornerstone of Peace is a section of the park unveiled in 1995 in honor of the 50th anniversary of the battle’s end. 241,000 names were inscribed as of 2015, but more names are added every year.
I visited the park in the Summer of 2015 with my family. As a large memorial dedicated to the civilians who perished in the Battle of Okinawa, the park emanated a different atmosphere from practically any other part of the island. The open fields and deep blue coast made for a very peaceful afternoon, and although very charming, the park displayed a purpose to depict the atrocities of war and advocate for peace. Through exquisite art and antiquated monuments in the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum, the park is able to promote world peace effectively and explicitly.
The place that stood out the most to me was the Cornerstone of Peace where, along the coast of the East China Sea, a circular, stone court stood. Behind it, over one hundred slabs of polished granite stood upright, each engraved with the names of the victims who lost their lives in the Battle of Okinawa. As I glanced among the thousands of names, the realization slowly crept in my mind the sacrifices past generations had made for me to be there that day. I also reflected on my own mortality, knowing some of the casualties were younger than me. It was overwhelming.
3. Kokusai Street (Kokusaidori)
Located in downtown Naha in southern Okinawa, this vibrant shopping and entertainment district is packed with unique boutique shops along the main street. As the main shopping street of the capital of Okinawa, a wide set of shops can be found from original Okinawan-made crafts to imported souvenir items, to local artists, major department stores, and everything in between! Kokusai Street connects many parts of Naha like Midorigaoka Park, Makishi Market, as well as many side streets that contain a diverse set of restaurants. Open from 10 AM until 5 AM the next day, the street is one of the most prominent nightlife hubs in all of Okinawa.
Kokusaidori was originally constructed right after World War II around a renowned theater called the Ernie Pyle International Theater. After the tragic death of famous US newspaper correspondent Ernie Pyle in Okinawa, a popular theater was named after his likeness. Many servicemen stationed at the Okinawa Honto island flocked to the theater, subsequently changing the area around it. In honor of the theater, the street alongside it was named “International Street” or Kokusaidori. Servicemen were so impressed by the zone’s swift recovery from the war, the 1.6 kilometer stretch was dubbed “Miracle Mile” by many in the early 1970s. To many, the street became a symbol of postwar recuperation.
I visited Kokusaidori in early 2019 for my birthday, and boy, was it a treat! Coming in on a Sunday night, the street was closed to incoming traffic, but not without a reason: street performers! A Lion Dance festival of red and white flushed the streets, and cheers came from the crowds lining the sidewalks. This impromptu street festivity was awfully exhilarating, and, although we could not actively dance with the performers (as that would be inconsiderate to their execution), the vivacity of the performance spread like wildfire among the crowd. Although I cannot quite rate the nightlife from personal experience, I am sure that the same energy can be felt around other parts of Kokusai.
I also tried this awesome donut-pole cake that was absolutely fantastic. (When I looked it up, the place was called Fukugiya and the cakes themselves were a German cake called ‘baum’, so definitely check it out!)
2. Churaumi Aquarium
Located in Ocean Expo Park in northern Okinawa, this aquarium presents visitors with a near magical experience, giving people close encounters with different types of fish, coral, manta rays, and sharks. Hosting dolphin shows and feeding events, alongside amazing views of the East China Sea, Expo Park’s main attraction is an extraordinary experience for kids and adults alike. Constructed as the largest aquarium in the world in 2002 and the third largest tank as of 2021, the Churaumi Aquarium is a must-see for tourists visiting Okinawa.
I last visited the aquarium in the Summer of 2014 with family and friends. Arriving at the Ocean Expo Park, I was immediately impressed with the area. From its fantastic botanical gardens to its gigantic playground, the park provided plenty of pleasure while also acting as a transitional path to the aquarium. Entering the aquarium, we were able to touch and interact with starfish, which were laid in a flat tank next to the entrance. This served as an excellent introduction to a mystical experience. With a wide variety of aquatic life, Churaumi’s Coral Sea tank, Kuroshio Sea tank, and Deep Sea tank are the aquarium’s crowning jewels.
As the most celebrated addition of Churaumi, the Kuroshio Sea tank holds a certain weight that differentiates itself from any other part. In the Kuroshio Sea tank, I was able to see a large crowd, marveling at the sight of a gigantic creature. With dark gray skin with white spots and stripes, two whale sharks moseyed about Kurishio’s gigantic tank along with schools of manta ray and fish. It truly was a majestic sight.
Deep in the Deep Sea tank area laid one of my favorite animals… You see, when I first visited the aquarium back in 2007, I became fascinated with the garden eels. Who would’ve thought that these curious little worms poking their heads out of the ground could have so much sentimental value? Seeing them again was a joyous time, they were always willing to give me their full attention and have nice long staring contests! More recently, these eels were on international headlines in May 2020. Apparently, in another Japanese aquarium, garden eels were avoiding people because they forgot what people looked like, so the aquarium was encouraging people to have video calls with the eels to help the eels feel less alone.
1. Shuri Castle (Shurijo)
Located in downtown Naha in southern Okinawa, this world-famous, UNESCO world heritage site presents visitors with a glimpse into the 14th century grandeur of the Ryukyu Kingdom’s palace. Built during the Sanzan Period, somewhere in the late 14th century, this former royal court was the capital of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Also known as the “Castle of the Ryukyu Kingdom”, Shurijo served as the kingdom’s capital from 1429 to 1879, a reign that ended with Japanese forces conquering the archipelago kingdom.
Over the years, the palace has been the subject of many attacks. Prior to 2019, the castle had been destroyed a total of four times, and each time, it was rebuilt with the intention of restoring the Ryukyuan way of life. More recently, Shurijo was destroyed for the fifth time on October 31st, 2019. An electrical fault unfortunately fried the main circuit board, completely incinerating the Seiden, Hokuden, Nanden, and Bandokoro sections of Shurijo. Since then, Naha city officials have pledged to rebuild the former Ryukyu castle by 2026 while keeping the historical site open to visitors.
I last visited the castle in the Summer of 2015 with my family (the same day we visited Peace Memorial Park!) After parking in the Shurijo Underground Parking Lot, we made our way up to Shureimon. Shureimon was built as the second gate leading up to Shurijo, but it now acts as the main gate for the palace. Interestingly, in researching, I found that Shureimon was actually implemented into the Japanese 2000 banknote! It really shows the cultural impact that Shurijo has on Japan as a whole!
Entering through the Kankaimon main gate into the walls of Shurijo, a wave of awe washed over me, the environment truly felt like it was from another era (besides all the tourists crowding the walls). At Shurijo’s main courtyard, the view was nothing short of fantastic! Since Shurijo was situated on a large hill, we were able to see Okinawa’s capital city for miles and miles. It was quite refreshing.
Finally, we came to the red and white floor of Shurijo’s royal reception area. The Una is the central courtyard where royal ceremonies were held, in front of the main hall. With a long, red pathway leading to the main hall, I could almost feel the grandeur emanating from Seiden. Seiden is the main hall where the throne room was held and state of affairs were conducted. To me, Seiden was the most impressive area by a long shot. Basked in a blend of red and gold, the throne room was truly fit for a king with magnificent murals of dragons, flowers, and fluffy clouds. Looking back, it really is unfortunate that the entire exhibit was burned to the ground. If you get the chance in 2026 or later, I highly recommend visiting this wonderful palace!
Hopefully, these descriptions have shown you just a sliver of Okinawa’s natural beauty and rich history. Visiting any of these sites will give you an appreciation for Okinawa. Whether it is the vibrant nightlife of Kokusaidori or the diverse marine life of Churaumi Aquarium, Okinawa is full of splendor for anyone to understand and appreciate. Making an effort to understand and appreciate a place is the best way to spend your time there! So, if you have a moment, take a flight down to the Hawaii of Japan and enjoy all the natural wonders and historic attractions Okinawa has to offer!
Bah! Even now, that pineapple song is stuck in my head. If you want to hear this masterpiece of a song, go to 0:32 on this link to discover the overtly catchy nature of this tune!