The most popular summer destination in Japan that attracts millions of visitors throughout the year is Okinawa. Okinawa city is a great jumping-off point to explore any of the 160 subtropic islands in the Okinawa Prefecture region. Okinawa offers spectacular white sand beaches, pristine blue water, numerous dive and snorkel sites, warm subtropical climate, and authentic Japanese culture. Hence making for one of the best destinations for backpackers. Here are 10 budget-friendly things to do in Okinawa.
Go Snorkeling At Maeda Point, Okinawa City
Maeda Point is one of the best diving and snorkeling spots in Okinawa. Its cape and big reef rocks are easily reachable from Okinawa city being less than a 30-minute drive away. The site usable by all skill levels as the water is clear and calm. The site includes an accessible mysterious cave called the Blue Cave which was created by wave erosion. The cave offers a fish habitat friendly to snorkelers and divers with mystic blue light from sunlight inflection inside.
There are several hidden beaches around Cape Maeda such as Beach 51. Here, you’ll find a lot of baby sea turtles born after mother turtles come to nest their eggs. As restaurants on the beach tend to be expensive, it is recommended to bring food to the beach. Additionally, there are many sandy beaches around Maeda Point.
Visit The Shuri Castle
Located in the city of Naha just south of Okinawa city is the red brick Shuri Castle; one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites. It is the chief royal palace of the Kingdom of Ryukyu which serves as the chief royal residence, administrative center for politics. It’s also a religious site for ceremonies and a repository of a collection of national heirlooms of historical relevance to Japan. The castle features a beautiful stone gate entrance to the sacred grove. Here, prayers are gathered when the king leaves the castle.
Also, along with the gate is a stone pathway leading through a grove with trees over 300 years old. The castle is easily reachable being a 15-minute walk from the Shuri Station on the Okinawa Monorail. The entrance fee is less than $8 and discounted rates are given if you have a monorail pass.
Explore The Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium
Located within the Ocean Expo Park just an hour north of Okinawa City is the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium. This was the largest aquarium in the world until it was superseded by the Georgia Aquarium in 2005. The complex is made up of four floors with tanks of deep-sea creatures, tropical fish, and large sharks. The exhibits include over 70 sharks. Also, the main tank holding 7,500,000 liters of water was the largest aquatic glass panel in the world upon opening.
Additionally, the tank holds some of the world’s biggest fish as well as whale sharks and manta rays. The world’s first birth of a manta ray in captivity was at this aquarium involving the reef manta ray breed. The aquarium entrance fee is upward of $17 but you can find discounted prices buying after 4 PM.
See The Caves Of Okinawa World Theme Park
About a 30-minute drive south from Okinawa City, you’ll find a theme park with massive natural caves at Okinawa World. The park complex is five km in length and features the second largest cave in the country; the Gyokusendo Cave. Here, you can take part in exploring the cave with spectacular views of stalactites and stalagmites. The cave is well maintained with walking paths that are well lit extending through the 900-meter cave.
Also, along with the cave system, you’ll find the Kingdom Village which is a replica of a traditional Ryukyu village. This includes workshops showcasing traditional Okinawan crafts like weaving, dyeing, paper making, sugar cone processing, pottery, and glass blowing. Additionally, you can also explore the Habu Park which is a snake museum. It includes snakes on display and a snake show.
Experience The Eisa Dance In Okinawa City
Unique to the islands of Okinawa is the famous dance called Eisa. It is a traditional dance with a long history originating from a folk song from hundreds of years ago. The dance style was passed down by the younger generations paying respect to their ancestors. They do this by marching with taiko drums through their neighborhoods. Also, when it comes close to the annual Bon Festival you will likely hear drums played in all parts of the island every night. The dance originated as a way of sending off the ancestral spirits with the beating of the drum.
The Bon Festival takes place between July 13-15 and features the vibrant dance with three-stringed instruments and the taiko drums. Between June and August, the island celebrates Eisa Night which are events held every week in different locations. All of the various Eisa events are free for everyone to attend. Also, it is highly recommended to try and attend while backpacking the island.
Indulge In Goat Sashimi
As most people are familiar with Japanese cuisine sashimi, eating raw meat instead of fish is common in Okinawa. Referred to as Hija-Sashi, Okinawans eat domestic goat meat sliced atop of rice. They prefer this over other dishes as they say it is good for their health. Surprisingly, the meat is perfectly fine to eat raw.
It also doesn’t have an odor as sashimi is always served cold. Also, this dish is considered a delicacy in Okinawa which has a good balance of chewy and tender. It’s also often served with spices and soy sauce. You won’t want to leave the island of Okinawa without being able to say you’ve had the notorious goat sashimi.
Learn About The Okinawa War
People often refer to the history of warfare in Okinawa as the “Okinawan Heart”. It is symbolic of the resilience of the people during the struggle against the oppression of the US military. Also, the Peace Memorial Museum, located on the southern end of the main island, is dedicated to the 200,000 lives lost in the Battle of Okinawa.
During WWII, the United States invaded the Ryukyu Islands. They used the area as a staging area to invade the rest of the country. The Battle of Okinawa is said to be the deadliest battle of the war. Also, along with the memorial museum is a Japanese Naval Underground Headquarters. It is a tunnel system in which over 4,000 sailors committed suicide.
Also, both the memorial museum and underground headquarters entrance fee are less than $4 each. Also, free audio guides are available making these must-see sites for backpackers.
Explore The Island Of Ishigaki
The Ishigaki Island lies just west of the main island of Okinawa and offers beautiful beaches and coral reefs for snorkeling. A diving site called Manta Scramble is well known for the large swarm of manta rays. They can be easily found snorkeling from the beach. The sand at the beaches is unique with grains shaped like stars.
The Shiraho Reef is another noteworthy place for snorkeling known for its rare blue coral. The interior of the island is mountainous offering beautiful hikes through mangrove forest habitat.
Also, rivers flow through the island offering areas to kayak through jungle-like scenery. Ishigaki has the highest mountain among the islands of Okinawa Prefecture which is accessible for climbing.
Explore Iriomote Island
The second-largest island in Okinawa City is Iriomote Island. This is where almost 90 percent of the island is covered in dense jungle and mangrove forests. The jungle is a haven for nature lovers and is part of the Iriomote Ishigaki National Park; one of Japan’s most unique parks. Sea and river kayaking are also among the most popular activities here along with hiking and snorkeling at the beaches.
The island is home to the Iriomote Yamaneko which is a type of wildcat discovered in the 1960s. Trying to find the Iriomote Yamaneko can be a bit of a challenge. This is because they are nocturnal; house-sized cats and there is said to be less than 100 of the cats alive today. The urachi river includes many low priced river cruises explore the jungle. There are several budget hotels and hostels available on the island.
Witness The Naha Tug Of War In Okinawa City
An annual festival held in the city of Naha every year is known as the Naha Tug of war. It was logged by Guinness Book of World Records as the largest tug of war event. Held the second week of October, the event draws nearly 275,000 people each year.
This then involves a tug of war competition using a rope of 40 metric tons with nearly 15,000 people on each side. Following the tug of war, the event is a grand parade with lion dancing, fan dancing, and martial arts performances. Additionally, there is no admission fee to the event and there are many budget-friendly hostels found in the city of Naha.