Okinawa in the Off Season
Okinawa in the winter months makes for an affordable getaway. Airfare and hotels are much cheaper, and the tourist attractions aren’t as crowded. The average temperature in January and February is around 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit), making it a little too chilly for sunbathing, but there are still lots of things to keep you busy. Historical sites, factory tours, local crafts, and water sports can be combined for a really interesting trip. The only caveat is that you will need a rental car, as the sites are spread out around the island.
First, a bit of history. Okinawa was once an independent nation called the Ryukyu Kingdom. It became a tributary state of China and was later annexed by Japan. At the end of WWII, Okinawa was under U.S. occupation until 1972, when it was returned to Japan. This long and complex history makes for some interesting sightseeing.
Shuri Castle served as the center of the Ryukyu Kingdom for about 500 years. It was restored in 1992 and then designated as a World Heritage Site in 2000. It is truly beautiful. Children can get a stamp rally sheet at the ticket counter and hunt for the spots to collect stamps as they tour the castle and its grounds. Those that gather the required number of stamps are rewarded with a sheet of stickers, which really motivates the little ones to complete the tour. Venues for lunch and tea are available on the castle grounds. For more information about visiting the castle, check out the official website.
Himeyuri Peace Museum honors 222 female students and 18 teachers that were mobilized during the Battle of Okinawa to work in the Okinawa Army Field Hospital. 136 of them lost their lives. The museum creates a vivid picture of the horrors of the war and its impact on Okinawa. Flowers can be bought outside the gate and placed at the site of the memorial. It is very much worth visiting. For more details, refer to the museum website.
The Former Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters is a good reminder of the tragedies of war. The tunnel complex served as a bunker during the American bombardment. After paying a small fee you can go down into the tunnels and explore them at your own pace. Click here to learn more about this interesting attraction.
Katsuren Castle Ruins is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site and a national historic site. It is located in Uruma City atop a steep hill, offering beautiful views of the surrounding area. For more details go to the website of the castle.
Sefa-utaki in Nanjo City is the most sacred site in the Ryukyu Kingdom. It is a quiet, peaceful place surrounded by greenery, where local people still go to worship. You can also enjoy a view of Kudaka Island from here. Wear comfortable footwear, as the stone path that brings you to the rock formation is a bit steep and slippery.
There are also some interesting factories that you can tour in Okinawa. The Brown Sugar Factory demonstrates the steps taken to produce brown sugar, starting with the planting and harvesting of sugar cane. You can even feed a piece of sugar cane into a machine and see the juice extracted. There are various cooking workshops available for a fee. Advance reservations are required and can be made by calling 098-958-4005 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the factory’s website for more information.
Nuchi Masu Salt Factory is also worth a visit to learn how salt is made. Nuchi masu is said to be heathier than your average salt, as it contains 21 types of minerals. There is also a gift shop and restaurant onsite. For details, click here.
Okinawa is a wonderful destination for kids, with lots of activities available for children of all ages. Okinawa World has a variety of attractions: a limestone cave, the Habu Museum and snake show, an Eisa dance performance, and various hands-on workshops. Indigo dyeing and pottery making are popular options.
Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium also draws many visitors each year, thanks in large part to its gigantic whale sharks. These beautiful creatures are housed along with manta rays in a massive tank which provides a spectacular view into underwater life. To read more about the aquarium, see its official website.
As long as it isn’t raining, kayaking through a mangrove forest is a perfect activity that the entire family can enjoy. There are numerous companies offering tours for beginner kayakers. I suggest booking an hour and a half tour if you are new to kayaking, as even this short amount of time gives you a pretty good workout and tires you out. The tour will include all of the necessary equipment needed.
Finally, no trip to Okinawa would be complete without a visit to a beach. Beach combing is the perfect way to enjoy the surf and sand at this time of year. You will find beautiful shells and pieces of coral. The most treasured souvenirs are often the ones we find ourselves.
Getting there: JAL, ANA and a handful of smaller airlines all offer several flights a day from Tokyo (Haneda or Narita) to Naha, Okinawa’s main city. Shop around or enlist the help of a travel agent in order to get the best fares and flights to fit your schedule.
Accommodation: Most hotels and resorts offer discounted rates during the off season, meaning you can indulge in a luxurious stay for a fraction of its normal price, or enjoy an entire vacation on a limited budget. Find deals on hotels from sites like Rakuten Travel or Booking.com.