The main island of Okinawa is a popular starting point for tourists wanting to explore this sub-tropical part of Japan. The city of Naha boasts an ancient castle, a vibrant shopping street, and many other attractions that make it well worth a visit.
Naha is by far the biggest city in Okinawa, home to 60% of the main island's residents. It is also home to Okinawa's only public rail system, and the Okinawa monorail provides an easy route through the city to the old capital of Shuri.
Your Okinawa adventure starts here. Naha Airport is the gateway to all of the Okinawa islands. The domestic airport welcomes planes from dozens of locations across Japan, with budget airlines catering for the traveler on a shoestring budget.
The city of Naha is just a 10-minute drive from the airport or a few stops on the monorail.
Okinawa is made up of hundreds of islands, but the main island is bigger than all the others put together
Naha has a population of 300,000
It replaced Shuri as the capital city in 1872
Shuri is now a part of the modern city of Naha
The Okinawa City Monorail can take you from the airport to the city center and on to Shuri. It is the only public transportation on the island apart from buses, and it takes less than 30 minutes to travel from end to end. The last stop is Shuri, the old capital, which is now a part of Naha.
You can also take a bus from the airport to Naha City Terminal. There is a website that provides route information in English, but buses generally do not run frequently in Okinawa, so plan your trips with care.
The best way to get around the island is by rented car. There are car rental outlets at the airport and in the city center. Just remember that speed limits are indicated in kilometers, and people drive on the left.
Okinawa has a sub-tropical climate, and it can be very hot in the summer months, so be sure to pack plenty of sunscreen and remember to drink water often. Temperatures are mild even in winter and the only times to avoid are the rainy season in late May and early June, and the succession of typhoons that hit the island in September.
Spring and autumn are the ideal months if you want to take in the sun, sea, and beaches, but it's best to avoid Golden Week, the prime holiday season for vacationing Japanese, which is in the first week of May.
Okinawa is one of 47 prefectures that make up Japan, but that has not always been so. Okinawa, or the Ryukyu Kingdom, as it was then known, was an independent kingdom until 1609, when it came under the rule of Satsuma, a province in southern Japan.
Commodore Matthew Perry docked in Naha Port in 1852 before his historic arrival in Edo (now Tokyo) the following year, when Japan opened up to the world after centuries of isolation.
Naha became the capital in 1872, and it later absorbed the old capital, Shuri. But it was always the center of trading activity on the island. The port of Naha was trading with Korea and mainland Japan from at least the 11th century.
The islands only became part of Japan in 1879. After World War II the islands were occupied by the United States, only being returned to Japan in 1972.
The Kingdom of Ryukyu was once a vassal state of the Ming Dynasty, and China's influence on this region of Japan is undeniable. Fukushu-en, a garden in Naha, is a manifestation of that power. All of the materials used to build it came from Fuzhou, as did its designers. The design and visual and aural effects are all subtly different from those of a Japanese garden.
Not far from Shuri Castle is one of the Ryukyu Kingdom royal family's favorite retreats, Shikinaen Royal Garden. This forested retreat has a large circular pond with several islands, stone bridges, a wooden palace, an observatory, a banana plantation and a freshwater spring. Foreign dignitaries and other high-ranking guests came here regularly.
There's plenty for you to see and do in Naha. It's a vibrant city with an active nightlife, most of it centered around Kokusai-Dori, or International Street, which runs for almost two kilometers through the heart of Naha.
You'll discover bustling covered arcades leading off Kokusai-Dori with stalls of local produce and handicrafts, and street performers on the traffic-free Sundays.
Take the monorail to the end, and you'll find yourself in Shuri, the old capital. Shuri Castle was the palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom from the 15th century until it came under Japanese rule in the 19th century.
The castle has been destroyed and rebuilt many times, most recently in 1992, after its destruction in World War II. As you walk among its many buildings and courtyards, you will find yourself transported back to the days of the Ryukyu Kingdom.
Be sure you don't miss out on a visit to Naminoue Shrine, which has been a sacred place in the religion of the Ryukyu Islands since it was first built in the 14th century. It was destroyed in the war but restored to its original splendor in the 1990s. The shrine is a 15-minute walk from the Asahibashi monorail stop.