Okinawa (沖縄県, Okinawa-ken) is Japan's southernmost prefecture, consisting of
a few dozen, small islands in the southern half of the Nansei Shoto, the
island chain which stretches over about one thousand kilometers from Kyushu
Okinawa Prefecture can be divided into three major island groups, the Okinawa Islands (Okinawa Shoto) around Okinawa Island (Okinawa Honto), the Miyako Islands (Miyako Retto) around Miyako Island and the Yaeyama Islands (Yaeyama Retto) around Ishigaki Island.
Okinawa's climate is subtropical, with temperatures barely falling below 15 degrees in winter. The seas surrounding Okinawa's islands are considered among the world's most beautiful with coral reefs and abundant marine wildlife. Consequently, snorkeling and scuba diving are among Okinawa's top attractions.
The islands making up Okinawa Prefecture, are also known as the Ryukyu Islands, named after the native culture, which is distinctly different from that of the rest of Japan in terms of language, cuisine, arts, etc.
An independent kingdom and tributary state to China for several centuries, the Ryukyu Islands came under control of the Satsuma feudal fief (today's Kagoshima Prefecture) in the 17th century, and were made a Japanese prefecture in 1879, accompanied by efforts to assimilate the native population. But despite these past efforts, the Ryukyuan culture survived and is now Okinawa's other main attraction.
Towards the end of World War Two, Okinawa became the stage of one of the war's bloodiest battles, when American troops invaded the islands. Okinawa remained under US administration until 1972, while several thousands of US military members remain stationed on the spacious and controversial US military bases on Okinawa Main Island today.
The Yaeyama Islands (八重山列島, Yaeyama Rettō)
are both the southernmost and westernmost inhabited islands of Japan.
Together with the Miyako Islands and the Okinawa Islands they make up the
three main island chains of Okinawa Prefecture.
With their tropical atmosphere and laid back, rural lifestyle, the Yaeyama Islands are a popular getaway destination for those wishing to escape the hustle and bustle of Japan's metropolises. This island paradise offers beaches, snorkeling, diving and relaxation.
Of the Yaeyama Islands, Ishigaki Island is the most populated and serves as the region's transportation hub. Other islands include the jungle covered Iriomote Island and Taketomi Island, famous for its beautifully preserved, traditional Ryukyu village. Five additional islands comprise the rest of the island chain and offer beaches, snorkeling and diving.
The center of the former Ryukyu Kingdom, Okinawa Main Island (沖縄本島, Okinawa
Hontō) is by far the largest and most populous island in Okinawa Prefecture
and the regional transportation hub. The prefectural capital Naha and most
of the US military bases are located on Okinawa Honto.
While much of the central part of Okinawa Honto is urbanized, the southern tip of the island is less densely populated, and the northernmost Yambaru area remains mainly covered by forested hills and small fishing and farming villages.
Miyako is the fourth largest island in Okinawa Prefecture. It lacks any major hills or mountains and is mostly covered by sugar cane fields and a few towns, among which Hirara is the largest with a moderate range of restaurants and bars. Resort hotels and pensions are found across the island. Unlike other parts of Okinawa, Miyako is free of habu snakes.
Miyako Island (宮古島, Miyakojima), located 300 kilometers south of Okinawa
Main Island and 100 kilometers north of the Yaeyama Islands, is known for
some of Japan's best beaches and as a great destination for snorkeling and
diving in the coral reefs. The sub tropical climate provides mild weather
Beaches are Miyako's most famous attraction. There are picturesque sand beaches for swimming and relaxing and coral reefs that provide excellent snorkeling. While the beaches are open year round, they are best enjoyed from April to November when the air temperature consistently tops 25 degrees and the water is very warm.
When enjoying the beaches, beware of strong currents that can pull you out to sea and poisonous creatures such as Habu Jellyfish, a type of box jellyfish, that is most prevalent from June to October. Although jellyfish stings are rare, if stung you should pour vinegar over the sting, remove any tentacles, and seek medical help as it may become life threatening if left untreated.
The Kerama Islands (慶良間諸島, Kerama Shotō) are a group of small islands in the
East China Sea. Located only about 40 kilometers to the west of Okinawa Main
Island, the Kerama Islands are a popular side trip due to their pristine,
white sand beaches and clear blue waters that are ideal for sunbathing,
swimming, snorkeling and diving. From January to March, the islands are a
popular destination for whale watching.
Kerama consists of 36 islands of which only four are inhabited, including the two largest islands, Tokashiki and Zamami. The Kerama Islands were designated a national park in 2014.