Okinawa is a prefecture of Japan located in the Pacific Ocean between Japan's four main islands and Taiwan. The prefecture’s namesake, Okinawa Island, is known for its tourism scene. Sand-and-sun-seekers from Japan's colder regions and from throughout East Asia descend on this island for its beaches, water sports and other tourist attractions. Other islands in the chain are known for their natural beauty, less-crowded beaches and historic sites. These “secondary” islands give the destination an appealing level of diversity. (Note: If you are curious about Okinawa's proximity to Fukushima, site of a nuclear accident in 2011, look at this map.)
The natural side of this region might be difficult to find at first. The main city of Naha on Okinawa Island is crowded, especially during tourist high season, but there are numerous opportunities to get out into nature. Less populated islands are only a ferry ride or short flight away. There are even some natural spots tucked away in the corners of the main island, as well as plenty of opportunities to enjoy eco-tourism activities on and under the ocean.
Like other popular beach destinations, there are constant challenges to the balance between the environment and tourism profits. Organizations like the World Wildlife Fund are involved in conservation efforts on the islands and there are plenty of opportunities for visitors to support the eco-tourism sector and low-impact businesses.
The prefecture has hundreds of islands, so it’s possible to get completely “off the map.” Several major islands, however, provide a good introduction to the area: Okinawa Island, Iriomote Island and Miyako Island.
There are some attractive land-based activities, especially for hikers and nature-watchers, but Okinawa is one of the best underwater sightseeing spots on the far side of the Pacific. Major diving shops on Okinawa Island regularly take qualified scuba divers to coral reefs. Most tours leave from Naha, though many visit the shorelines and shoreside reefs of other islands in the chain. Sea life ranges from anemones and their resident clownfish to rays and dolphins. Coral labyrinths can give diving an edge of adventure.
The WWF has established a research and conservation center on the island of Ishigaki, adjacent to Okinawa Island. Researchers study the coral, and the center also has an outreach program that facilitates sustainable interactions between island residents and the ocean.
Okinawa Island is a crowded place, but it is possible to come in contact with nature without having to hop on a ferry to other islands. The natural area of Yanbaru has forests that are characterized by the many ferns that carpet the ground. Yanbaru's winged population draws vacationing bird-watchers. The park also features one of the most accessible of the prefecture’s many mangrove forests.
For those who prefer a more controlled environment for their nature-viewing, Naha is home to one of the world's most impressive aquariums, the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium. The large central tank at this venue has several whale sharks. These are the largest fish in the world, and Churaumi is one of the only places where they have been successfully bred in captivity. There are also tropical fish and coral reef exhibits featuring life from Okinawa's seas. This is a good place for non-divers to get a taste of the islands' marine scene. Passes are around $21.
For eco-tourists interested in the unique above-water landscapes of the islands, Iriomote and Miyako are two of the most accessible destinations. In terms of nature and population density, Iriomote is almost the exact opposite of Okinawa Island. Ninety percent of Iriomote is covered by tropical forest. The extensive greenspaces are home to wildcats and eagles. Many nature-themed tours focus on areas around the Urauchi River. The upper reaches of the river contain evergreen forests heavily populated with wildlife. There are waterfalls and a mangrove forest nearer to the island's edges.
Miyako Island's Shimajiri Mangrove Forest is a natural feature that makes this island, known for its quieter beaches, worth a visit for sun-seeking eco-tourists. Five of the six species of mangroves found in the Ryukyu Islands grow naturally on Miyako. Eco-itinerary options like Hirara City Tropical Plant Garden and the butterfly garden at Miyako Paradise make this a worthwhile stop for those seeking a convenient green getaway.
Even though pork and fish are mainstays in Okinawan cuisine, Okinawa is a great place for eating green. The islands' residents are famed for their longevity, with many experts attributing the graceful aging to diet (as well as lifestyle). While less-authentic foods are becoming more widespread, especially in Naha, it is easy to find organic or vegetarian restaurants. Some places even specialize in macrobiotic dishes, a type of vegan diet popular in Okinawa that relies on unprocessed ingredients. Given the amount of press in the West about Okinawan diets, these super-health-food restaurants can be a little hard to find, but they are there if you can do some legwork or enlist someone with local knowledge to help.
For those who want to sleep completely green, the major islands have campgrounds. If you bring your own tent, you can camp for about $10 to $20 per night. Some campgrounds offer cabins or guesthouses (ranging from about $50 to more than $100, depending on the size of the cabin and the location). On the more rural isles, like the overtly natural Iriomote Island, camping is a quieter, more natural undertaking than on Okinawa Island.
Like other regions in Japan, it is virtually impossible to escape high hotel prices in Okinawa. The Motobu Green Park Hotel and Resort is one of the greener large-hotel choices in the prefecture. Guests can also go green at a small guesthouse (ryokan) or a bed-and-breakfast (minshuku). Many smaller villages, such as the ones on Iriomote, have minshuku, which is often little more than an extra room in a house that is rented out to tourists.
Inter-island travel is best accomplished by ferry. There is an impressive network of routes between the major islands. If you choose to fly, Japan Trans-Ocean Air offers ticket packages that allow users to book multiple flights for one reasonable price.
Traveling around the islands is a different story. Unlike “mainland” Japan, there are no widespread rail networks in Okinawa (aside from a tourist-centered monorail in Naha). Larger islands have bus service, and this is the best option for public transportation. Uneven terrain makes biking difficult, and heavy traffic on Okinawa Island can make it dangerous. There are plenty of hiking trails throughout the islands, making walking, in urban or rural areas, the best choice for going green.
Car rental is an option. Green-minded visitors who usually shy away from this form of transportation will be happy to know that Nissan is shipping more than 200 of its new 100 percent electric Leafs to rental agencies in the prefecture. These limited-range vehicles are a perfect option for the Okinawan islands, where not much distance has to be covered between attractions.
The islands of Okinawa Prefecture have a diverse menu of attractions for everyone from mainstream beach-goers looking for an exotic experience to scuba divers and eco-tourists in search of unique landscapes and seascapes.
Related on MNN: Visit our other destinations of the week.