When you first think of Japan, what immediately comes to mind? I'm going to make an educated guess and say it's probably something the lines of big cities, crowded places, and tall sky-scrapers... am I right? If so, please throw all that out the window - Japan too has places of untouched natural wonders, many of which are found on Okinawa Prefecture (沖縄県). Okinawa Prefecture is the southernmost prefecture of Japan, comprised of hundreds of the Ryukyu Islands in a chain that is over 1,000km long.
There is so much to see and do in Okinawa - the best way is to hire a car and do a self-guided tour; navigating around the island is relatively easy, especially when considering you're in a foreign country who speak a different language. The locals, in my experience, are very friendly and go out of their way to help visitors when they see it is needed. It's worth noting that the maximum speed when driving in Okinawa is 80km/hr (on the highway); most other streets have a 50km/hr speed limit, with even lower speed limits near Naha, the prefectural seat (i.e. capital) of Okinawa Island.
Hiring a car is the easiest and most convenient way of getting around the prefecture.
Yanbaru Kuina Observation Deck literally takes shape in the form of a large Yanbaru Kuina bird; and by large, I mean a three-storey tall bird! Yanbaru Kuina, an endangered flightless bird with a red beak and red nose is easily the most famous bird in Okinawa; it lives solely in Yanbaru, on the north side of Okinawa. It's highly unlikely that you will see one of these birds in the wild as they are extremely rare; in fact, they were discovered only relatively recently in 1978. Lucky for you, this giant Yanbaru Kuina Observation Deck more than makes up for it!
By far the largest bird you will ever see on Okinawa Island.
Opening Hours: 9:30am - 4:30pm (May to September), 9am - 4pm (October to April)
Admission: ¥200 (Adults)
How many lighthouses have you visited that allow you to make your way up to the top... via a 99 step staircase? Zanpa Misaki Lighthouse does just that, with just a small admission fee. Get your cardio done for the day at the same time as doing some sightseeing! 99 steps may sound challenging, but it is very manageable - I was able to do it without much difficulty despite choosing extremely appropriate footwear in the form of heels. Do exercise caution though, as the staircase is quite narrow in sections, in addition to several steeper inclines. However, despite all this, the view you get at the top more than makes up for the effort you had just put in to get here! If climbing up a lighthouse isn't exactly your thing, there is still plenty to explore on the ground - take in the ocean view paired with a refreshing sea breeze from the rocky coastline surrounding the lighthouse, and admire the wonders of Mother Nature.
Opening Hours: Open every day, 8:30am - 7pm (until 6pm from December to March; until 8pm from July to September)
Admission: ¥820 (Adults)
Shuri Castle was the proud and dignified centre of the Ryukyu Kingdom between 1429 and 1879; after this period, it unfortunately became largely neglected. It was nearly completely destroyed during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, but was later re-purposed as a university campus. Shuri Castle's architectural design was a hybrid of influences from both China and Japan - with exceptional cultural and historical values in its unique stonework and architecture, Shuri Castle was designated as a World Heritage Site in December 2000, making it the 11th World Heritage Site in Japan.
Architecture influenced from both China and Japan.
The adventure starts from when you first enter Kouri Ocean Tower and hop in one of their automated carts up to the main gate, taking you through beautifully curated gardens and increasingly breathtaking views of the Kouri Island as you make your way up. From there, admire the wide variety of shells in the Shell Museum that have been gathered from all around the world to make up one impressive exhibition here in Okinawa - there are over 10,000 shells in Kouri Ocean Tower's collection! Keep making your way forward and you will be able to admire panoramic ocean views of Kouri Island from inside the tower - but why stop there? Head to the top floor, where there is an open deck with unobstructed views; take your time and take in both the stunning view coupled with the fresh ocean breeze. If you're feeling brave, perhaps you could even ring the bell! Once you've had your fill of the view, head back down and dine at Kouri Ocean Tower's restaurant ("Ocean Blue"), or check out the souvenir shop to see what tangible memory you can take away from this place.
There are many different companies that offer paragliding as an activity in Okinawa, including Blue Sky. The experience costs just ￥10,000 for those 7 years and older, or ￥8,000 for children aged 3 to 6. It's worth noting that this activity is suitable for wheelchair users too. I found Blue Sky to be professional in all aspects; from when the booking was first made to when I was actually up in the air. The staff were very friendly, and did their best to put those who were feeling nervous at ease, to make the experience as enjoyable as possible. Should you wish to take your phone up with you to take photos, Blue Sky will provide a pouch in which you can put your phone - this goes around your neck so that you don't have to worry about dropping it. The instructor pointed out famous landmarks and the history surrounding it once we were 200m up in the air, including the Mihama American Village. It was an amazing experience, one I'd love to repeat should I get the chance to!
Have you been to Okinawa before? Or perhaps you have an upcoming trip? Which of these attractions have you been to or are interested in visiting? Leave a comment down below and let us know your thoughts!
Note: The reason why Okinawa Aquarium was not included in this list is because this list encompasses lesser-known activities, in the hope that it will provide travellers with new places to visit while in the area.