Photo: mrhayata

Mary Richardson breaks down the island’s avoidable attractions…and what you should do instead.
1. Don’t… expect a modern Japanese lifestyle

Mainland Japan is all about efficiency and neon. Elaborate transport systems link destinations with amazing speed. Trains leave on the dot, fast food is served before you can blink, and lights emerge full force at dusk.

But that’s mainland. Okinawa is a different entity.

Do… enjoy the island pace

Bus schedules, business meetings, and public events all operate on Oki time, lagging considerably behind the frenzy of Tokyo or Osaka.

In addition, there are no sprawling train or metro systems. That means you’ll have to rent a car, roll down the windows, and breathe fresh ocean air. Instead of neon, you’ll witness stunning blue at unexpected turns.

2. Don’t… be afraid to get lost

Streets can be confusing to visitors. What looks to a Westerner like a dead-end alley is often a widely traveled two-lane street. Apart from major intersections, there are few street signs.

Locals give directions like so: “Pass the sugarcane field, turn right at the Family Mart, it’s next to the outdoor vending machine.” Needless to say, navigation is hard when there’s a vending machine for every 3 people on the island.

Photo: knaakle

Do… wander anyway

Okinawa is only 65 miles long and averages 5 miles wide, making it hard to get completely disoriented. So stroll down a narrow alley in Naha City or a sandy path in Onna Village without worry.

In my own experience, getting lost has presented new discoveries, like a funky beach bar full of Okinawan surfers. Another time, I took a wrong turn and found myself surrounded by a blooming lily field.

3.Don’t… chow on Japanese standards only

Okinawa offers an array of excellent food, including sushi, noodles, rice dishes, tofu, and other traditional favorites. But part of what makes the island unique is its distinctive regional cuisine, produced by local farmers and manufacturers.

Do… sample the Okinawan diet

Many health experts believe traditional Oki food enhances longevity. In fact, Okinawans hold the title of longest lifespan in the world.

Enjoy soba, black pork, sea grapes, beni-imo purple sweet potato, goya (bitter gourd), peanut tofu, and jasmine tea and live to 100.

Goya stir-fry / Photo: pelican

4. Don’t… give up on goya

A local staple for centuries, goya is an extremely bitter vegetable packed with iron and vitamin C, often served in stir-fry dishes.

Many visitors instantly dislike the taste and never give it a second chance despite its health benefits and affordability.

Do… try multiple incarnations

Ingenious cooks have devised skillful ways to disguise the notoriously bitter taste. Goya stir-fry not your thing? Well then, try another version.

My personal favorites include goya smoothies, goya beer, fried goya chips, and goya ice cream.

5. Don’t… be surprised at “Japanese only” signs

Okinawa has been playing host to around 45,000 Americans since the end of World War II. Despite the integration of foreigners into many aspects of daily life, some locals simply want a space of their own.

Thus, there are bars, restaurants, and other places designated off limits to non-Japanese.

Photo: micsalac

Do… patronize foreign-friendly establishments

There’s no shortage of cafes, recreation spots, drinking holes, stores, museums, and cultural venues that welcome foreigners. Naha’s Kokusai Street, Onna Village, Chatan, and Nago are overflowing with them.

6. Don’t… throw out trash haphazardly

Due to a lack of landfill space, proper trash disposal and composting are taken very seriously. On a tiny island, there are dramatic environmental repercussions from irresponsible behavior.

Residents are fined accordingly.

Do… pay attention to your waste

Separate your garbage into specified organic food, paper, plastic, glass, and noncombustible bins. Public venues conveniently provide separate cans for different kinds of waste. Local municipal offices accept recyclable and refurbished materials.

One funny particular about Okinawa is that trash collectors play a whimsical tune similar to ice cream trucks in the West. The first time hearing it, I raced outside to buy some and found a trash truck instead — not an ice cream cone in sight.

7. Don’t… fret over typhoons, earthquakes, and tsunamis

This tiny island between the Pacific Ocean and East China Sea is vulnerable to Mother Nature.

From June to November, residents brace themselves for the official typhoon season, averaging 30-40 tropical storms of varying intensity. On top of gusty winds, street flooding, and downpours, Okinawa often gets rocked by small tremors with the chance of tsunami.

Do… enjoy the stormy weather and swaying buildings

While foreigners wait in long lines to buy canned goods, locals accustomed to the dramatic weather can be found out having fun at restaurants and shopping centers during the most (seemingly) catastrophic conditions.

Buildings are earthquake proof and built to withstand strong winds and rain.

8. Don’t… assume Okinawa is all palm trees

Beaches are certainly the standout attraction here. And the warm clear waters and coral reefs off the coast make snorkeling and scuba diving popular activities.

But there’s much more to do and see — caves, historic sites, lush forests, and mountains.

Do… explore the island’s interior

Wander one of the 9 UNESCO World Heritage sites, hike up Hiji Falls, explore the Valley of Gangala, and check out stalactites inside Gyokusendo Cave.

My favorite outdoor excursion of all has been strapping myself in a harness at the Forest Adventure Park, zipping along the treetops and gazing at the ocean in the distance.

9. Don’t… stay at one of the tourist resorts

Like most island destinations, Okinawa features that long stretch of done-up tourist hotels. They do have comfortable rooms, expansive buffets, and private beaches, with all the giant umbrellas that go along with that.

But they’re also expensive, impersonal, and overflowing with tour groups.

Do… book at a fun, offbeat inn

Try something different with Beach Rock Mountain Village, where you sleep in one of the communal tepees and eat all your meals in a treehouse.

Or stay at the Banian Resort Trailer Park and sleep in a “themed” trailer overlooking the ocean.

Photo: Dolmang

10. Don’t… be typical

The world-class Churaumi Aquarium, with its huge tank of whale sharks and manta rays, is awe-inspiring. Okinawa World Park and its Habu snake show are entertaining. And Peace Prayer Park, honoring fallen soldiers of the Battle of Okinawa, is moving beyond words.

But there are so many cultural events to attend here that encourage interaction and understanding of local traditions and customs.

Do… join the community in regular celebrations

Okinawa hosts a range of public events over the year, including Dragon Boat Races, Children’s Sumo Wrestling, fireworks festivals, Eisa Dancing parades, and the world’s largest Tug of War.

Let me tell you, there’s nothing quite like pulling on a giant rope with 15,000 of your closest friends. Don’t mind the summer humidity — these are unique chances to witness the unique character of the people…and take awesome pictures.

Community Connection

Get closer to Okinawan culture by reading about Shinugu Matsuri: The Festival That Could Change the World.

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