Unique Things to do in Okinawa, Japan

By Abi King | Japan

Jan 07

Rethink your idea of Japan by considering these unique things to do in Okinawa, her most southern and sub-tropical islands. Brimming with history, palm trees, sunshine and a cuisine like no other, it’s here that people have the longest life expectancy in the world.

In Okinawa, you are closer to Taiwan than Tokyo. Instead of business suits and silk kimonos, floral shirts are all the rage. But Okinawa’s identify runs deeper than just sunshine and fashion.

“Okinawa is different,” confided a businessman I’d met in Tokyo the day before.

“How so? “

“They are ocean people,” he shrugged. “They relax more, have different food and speak a different language. They are a young addition to Japan.”

Young, as it turns out, means 500 years old.

“We are a relaxed, optimistic people,” one interpreter told me. “Which makes it easy for other countries to take advantage.”

He looked over his shoulder. “Not that it will change us. I lived in the UK and I was depressed. When I came back to Okinawa I asked my doctor for help. He told me I didn’t need it. That now that I was home I would be fine.”

He chuckled. “And he was right.”

Unique Things to do in Okinawa, Japan

Search for Star Shaped Sand on Taketomi Island

Crouched on the beach, I watch him press his hand into the sand and hold it there for a count of three. He then stands and stares at his palm. Beyond him, two others do the same and beyond them even more people stoop, silhouetted against the bright sun and flawless turquoise waters of Hoshizuna Beach.

Taketomi itself has changed little over the centuries; its 300 or so inhabitants still farm sugar cane and have banned the use of concrete. While the main Okinawan island, actually called Okinawa, has embraced modernisation with high rise towers, an airport and the controversial US bases, Taketomi seems happy with stone walls, solitude and swathes of mangrove.

It’s not the only Okinawan island with its own identity.

Learn About Ryuku Culture and World War Two

What the islands share, other than stunning beaches, is the rich Ryukyu culture that survived the region’s greatest tragedy. The only WWII battle fought on Japanese soil took place in sunny, laid-back Okinawa and its implications burn on still. The defeat left a third of the population dead, many as a result of suicide, and ushered in the US occupation.

Water Buffalo Island Hopping: The Yaeyama Islands

When the US occupied the Okinawa islands in southwest Japan, they switched the rules of the road to make everyone drive on the right. When they withdrew, the local people switched them right back.

The chaos that resulted from these frequent changes never filtered through to the transport link between Yubu & Iriomote. These remote Yaeyama islanders did what they had always done*: they let the water buffalo choose the route.

These water buffaloes start their training at the age of two and it’s a process that takes a full year. They then plod across the paradise shores at their own pace until easing into part-time work prior to retirement.

The simple twang of the Ryukyu sanshin guitar keeps them entertained.

What did I make of this unusual journey? Well, when we arrived the water was glistening, the beach deserted and the buffalo carts looked like a mirage from another time and place.

 Disclosure – I visited Okinawa as a guest of JNTO. As ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like. 


About the Author

Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more.

  • i love these photos – what an incredible trip! great idea – i’ll file it away for future reference!

  • jason says:

    Nice video and interesting Okinawan tradition. What is buffalo tracing? Some kind of family tree for herbivores?

  • Abi says:

    No idea – but Japan does seem keen on small, anthropomorphic representations of animals!

    • Mariko says:

      I’m half-Okinawan, lived on the mainland as a kid but never visited the other island so I’m not sure about the whole buffalo tracing pic but it seems to be the names of the buffalo and their dates of birth. H being short for Heisei, the current imperial age, the alternate way of counting years in Japan. Sorry it’s not a greater insight.

      • Abi says:

        Sorry for my slow reply. That’s actually a great insight about the H for Heisei as a way of measuring age. How many ways are there of counting years in Japan? Thanks, Abi

  • Ludo says:

    You should always try to discourage people and tourists to ‘use’ animal based tourist attractions. There is enough to do on this planet. Not riding an elephant or not hoping islands by buffalo shouldn’t make our experiences abroad less worthwhile. I would hope a website like yours promote intelligent and protective traveling. Protective for people and animals.
    Those animals may look fine to you but you never know what goes on behind the scenes.

    • Abi King says:

      Hi Ludo, thanks for the thoughtful comment. I do agree that some uses of animals in the tourism industry are exploitative – and I don’t endorse activities that are clearly negative. However, do I think that animals and humans should never work and live together? I’m not sure that that’s the right conclusion to draw either. For me, it’s more complex than that – although I know that not everyone agrees. There are those who believe that anything involving humans and animals together is wrong – and those who don’t care at all about what humans do to animals. I’m in the middle.

      As far as I could tell on this trip (and you’re correct in that, in this case, I didn’t see what went on behind the scenes) these animals weren’t just strapped on to carts for the tourists, the practice is a reflection of traditional customs. That alone isn’t enough, for me (I don’t support bullfighting just because it’s traditional) but the animals did look well-cared for and seemed to have better working conditions than many people do across the world.

      There are also the other puzzles of tourism – effects on the environment and accessibility – and how to balance them.

      In this case, I believe, not continuing to use the buffalo would cut access to the islands for several people unless a road or bridge were built, which isn’t as good for the environment.

      But I take your points – and it’s always worth questioning ourselves as much as we can.

      Thanks again for your contribution, Abi

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