Okinawa: Japan’s natural treasure

Kayaking – Urauchi River, Iriomote Island, Okinawa, Japan. Pic: Sam DCruz, Shutterstock.

OKINAWA archipelago consists of both inhabited and uninhabited islands – 49 and 111, respectively. A major Japanese tourist destination, Okinawa is home to splendid nature and a distinct culture. It is also the birthplace of karate.

The narrow rope of islands that is Okinawa ranges from a subtropical climate on most of the islands to the tropical rainforest region of Yaeyama, in southwestern Okinawa. Yaeyama is in fact closer to Taiwan than the principal Okinawan islands.

Most visitors come to Okinawa for the beaches and year-round mild weather. It is also famous for its cuisine, which has a notable Taiwanese influence. Vegetarians and healthy eaters will be pleased by the many vegetarian and macrobiotic restaurants. The famous Okinawan diet contains 25% less sugar and 75% less grains than the typical Japanese diet and has gained attention due to the overall health and longevity of the Okinawan people.

Mariyudo waterfall, Iriomote Island, pic: Geomr (Wikimedia Commons)


Eco-tourism in Okinawa


To experience proper nature, one must get away from the hustle and bustle of Naha, Okinawa’s capital and largest city, and explore the surrounding nature and smaller islands, which are accessible either via a short flight or ferry ride, the latter being the more environmentally conscious method of inter-island travel. Much of Okinawa Island itself is crowded, but the area of Yanbaru contains a forested area, which is great for bird-watching and has an easily accessible mangrove forest.

Here’s what the Age has to say about eco-tourism in Okinawa:

In the far north of Okinawa Island, a mountainous region called Yanbaru has some of the most pristine subtropical rainforests in Asia, and a growing ecotourism industry. Ufugi Nature Museum (“ufugi” means “big tree” in Okinawan) has information (in English as well as Japanese) on the area’s flora and fauna. There are walking trails and guided canoeing, hiking and bird-watching day trips run by the non-profit Kunigami Tourism Association. For a wilder experience, Iriomote Island (an hour’s flight and a 35-minute ferry ride from Naha) is regarded as the “Galapagos of the East”

Nature-based activities considered unique in Okinawa (in relation to the rest of Japan) include canoeing through mangrove jungles and trekking on Iriomote Island, considered to be the last part of Japan that remains “unexplored”. Part of Okinawa’s tropical rainforest climate, 90% of Iriomote is tropical forest, 80% is protected state land and over 34% of the island a national park. It is also the only domain of the critically endangered Iriomote cat.

Okinawa is a great place for diving, whale watching, caving and sea kayaking. Miyako Island is home to Japan’s biggest coral reefs.

Imugya Marine Garden, Miyako Island, pic: H Aoki (Flickr CC)

From the Mother Nature Network:

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.

For those a bit intimidated by Japanese prices, Okinawa offers a variety of camping options for the nature-oriented tourist. This is highly recommended on some of the more remote, less-crowded islands. Another option for those who want to get their hands dirty is volunteering on an organic farm. Canaan Slow Farm on Okinawa Island’s northwest coast, a member of the Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF) movement, operates an organic restaurant and guesthouse. Volunteers can work there in exchange for room and board.

Ishigakijima Limestone Cave, Ishigaki Island, pic: public domain