Okinawa, the most southern prefecture of Japan, is an archipelago of over 160 islands surrounded by ocean whirling with teal and turquoise shades. Most travellers will start their island trip from Naha airport, which is located midway on Okinawa mainland. To experience Okinawa islands with sandy beaches and crystal-clear waters, you should try to travel further away from Naha, the prefectural city.
Okinawa’s outer islands still embrace the slower island life and traditional cultures. I had the privilege to live in Okinawa for some time and here’s a list of beautiful outer islands easily accessible from Naha for that unique island adventure!
The fastest way to experience Okinawa’s sandy beaches from Naha is to hop on a high-speed ferry at Tomarin port. Designated as Japan’s National Park, the Kerama islands 慶良間諸島 is a gateway to pristine islands, vibrant coral reef and its famous Kerama blue waters. The island chain consists of more than 30 islands of which only four are inhabited.
Two of the largest islands Zamami and Tokashiki are littered with beaches and scenic lookout points. Zamami’s Furuzamami beach is great for beginners as the corals and fishes are near the shore and lucky swimmers can find sea turtles at Ama beach in the morning.
Tokashiki has less crowded beaches and its rugged terrain is best explored with rental cars. The smaller islands Aka and Geruma are peaceful with rustic island vibes. Aka’s Nishibama beach is a local’s favourite while Geruma is just a bridge away and home to Kerama deers. The islands are packed during summer so remember to reserve ferry tickets and accommodation in advance.
There are also camping sites for island hoppers who like to be close to Nature. The islands become busier in late July during the Zamami Sabani and Tokashiki festivals. Whale watching season starts in winter from January to March and humpback whales can be spotted around the islands.
Access: High speed and regular ferry from Tomarin port. Check ferry schedule and cost at Zamami village website.
Ou Island (Ojima)
Ou island or Ojima 奧武島, as known affectionately by the locals, is a cosy island in Nanjo. Situated in southern part of Okinawa mainland, this island is synonymous with Okinawan style tempura. It is a food faux pas if you do not stop by the island’s tempura speciality shops. Okinawan tempura is denser and heartier than Japanese tempura. There is no need to dip the local tempura in any sauce as the ingredients are very flavourful. Okinawan classics like mozuku (seaweed) and beni imo (sweet potato) tempura are highly recommended.
The island is well known for cats who quietly follow greedy human beings munching on tempura. Every year on 4th of May, Hari ceremony is held on the island. Hari is a fishermen’s festival with dragon boat races to pray for safe passage and bountiful harvest.
Access: 40-minute drive from Naha Airport
Kudaka Island (Kudakajima)
Kudaka island or Kudakajima 久高島 is the most spiritual island I have ever visited in Okinawa. The sacred island is believed to be the first island created by the legendary ancestor of Okinawa, Amamikiyo. Ryukyuan kings and royalty visited the island to pay their respects so Kudaka is also commonly called the “Island of Prayers.” The island is closely associated with the Okinawan phrase “Nirai kanai” which means the “faraway utopia where Gods live and all things begin.”
It is important to be respectful of the local’s culture and religion on the island and not venture into the spiritual spots which are closed to public. Holy women or Noro are highly regarded in the community and the sacred ceremony “Izaiho” is held every 12 years to appoint Noro. Sadly, due to declining population, the last Izaiho was in 1978. Try not to rush when you are on the island, respect the island’s pace and hop on a bicycle to explore the island’s secrets.
Access: 25-minute ferry or 15-minute high speed ferry from Azama Port. Check ferry schedule and cost at Kudaka island ferry website.
Tsuken Island (Tsukenjima)
One of the islands in the Yokatsu Pennisula of mainland Okinawa, Tsuken Island or Tsukenjima 津堅島 is a small island famous for carrots. Carrot fields are the heart of this “Carrot Island” which is blessed with fertile lands that grow sweet Tsuken carrots. On the island, you can savour the quintessential Okinawan dish, “ninjin shiri shiri”, a humble dish of stir-fried shredded carrots with egg that is elevated by the saccharine homegrown carrots.
Tsuken is historically linked to Kudaka island as exchanges between the island were facilitated by sea travel during low tides. With the rolling farmlands and sandy beaches, it is hard to believe that the tranquil island once endured a tragic past when it was completely destroyed during World War Two. The American troops burnt down the island’s dense palm groves.
One memorable encounter on the island was when I spoke to a local who explained the island’s history while she taught me how to harvest carrots. At the end of our conversation, she shared the Okinawan proverb “Nuchi du takara” – “life is a treasure” and her words truly reflect the importance of peace on this very special island.
Access: 30-minute ferry or 15-minute high speed ferry from Heshikiya Port. Check ferry schedule and cost at Tsuken island ferry website.
Kume Island (Kumejima)
Floating 90 kilometres west of Okinawa mainland, Kume Island or Kumejima 久米島 is a remote island worth a long ferry or short plane ride from Naha. During the Ryukyu Kingdom era, the island prospered in trade with China and was praised as “Kumi no Shima” which means “Island of Beauty in Ryukyu.” With its diverse landscape and flora and fauna, it is not surprising that the entire island is designated a prefectural natural park.
Hate no Hama beach, a stunning 7-km coral-fringed sandbar, is the most famous island landmark. Tours with timings to match the tides are available for eager sunbathers and snorkellers. Another popular swimming beach is Tatami ishi famed for its intriguing natural formations of flat rocks shaped like Japanese tatami mats.
Other than natural attractions, the island has many historical sites like Uegusuku, the highest castle ruins in Okinawa, offering panoramic views of the island. Ancient history and science co-exists on the island as research and technologies about deep sea water allows local communities to use seawater resources for harvesting high quality salt and produce like seaweed.
Its neighbouring island, Tonaki, makes a nice detour if you like quiet beaches. There must be something magical about Kume as I know a few foreign teachers who spent 5 years living on the island and 1 is still living there. If you would like an immersive island escapade, Kume is probably the one for you.
Access: 3.5 hour regular ferry from Tomarin port or 45-minute domestic flight from Naha airport. Check ferry schedule and cost Kume island ferry website.
A visit to an outer island is essential to complete your Okinawa’s travel experience. Okinawa is truly a unique island with its distinctive Okinawan culture due to its history as an independent Ryukyu kingdom before being annexed by Japan. Okinawans proudly identify themselves as uchinanchu or “sea people” in their local dialect. During your visit, please respect uchinanchu’s land and sea, do not litter their beaches, step on the corals or trespass the locals’ private properties. You will gain so much more from this beautiful paradise if you interact with the locals. For more information, visit the official Okinawa Tourism site to plan your next island escapade!