Over 900 miles southwest of Tokyo, Okinawa-hontō—Okinawa's main island—anchors the lesser-known string of islands straddling Japan's two southernmost prefectures. For those who fancy a beach holiday on their grand tour of Japan, its tropical climate and unique Ryūkyūan culture are just a two-hour flight from Tokyo.

Three days provide abundant opportunities for exploring Okinawa-hontō, even allowing for an overnight ferry to tiny, otherwise inaccessible islands nearby. You can taste your way around unusual regional specialties, get an overview of Okinawan art history, snorkel with clownfish, create your own traditional handicrafts, and even have time for a nap on the beach.  

Itinerary #1: Okinawa Overview

A traditional Okinawan shisa guarding Shuri Castle

Completely different from 'mainland' Japan, Okinawa's unique culture is alive with Ryūkyūan influences and has a relaxed island vibe.

You'll touch down in the southern hub of Naha, beginning your first day exploring the interior and grounds of the spectacularly reconstructed Shuri Castle, which dates back to the 14th century. The castle's architecture and decorative elements incorporate a blend of Japanese and Ryūkyūan styles, and it is one of Okinawa's most significant historical sites.  

Catch the raised monorail back downtown for a look at Naha's Tsuboya Pottery Museum in the old ceramics district. The small museum not only displays excellent examples of Okinawan pottery and tools, but it also preserves a cross-section of kiln wall that was built directly into the hillside.

You'll find shops selling traditional and contemporary Okinawan pottery lining the same old-fashioned lane—a great spot to shop for original, handpainted crockery.

On your second day, take a rental car for a drive around the southern tip of the island to explore the scars of World War II.  Schools, makeshift hospitals, and former military headquarters have been preserved as anti-war memorials. These peace museums document how Okinawan civilians suffered in the last brutal weeks of wartime.

Though the material can be difficult, the overarching theme is peace. They also provide an insight into Okinawa's generally pacifist attitudes.

Whale sharks at Churami Aquarium

On day three, head north to the Motobu Peninsula to stroll around beachside Bise Village. Catch a glimpse of slow-paced village scenery: Walk along its leafy, narrow road, relax on the beach, or brave the crowds at the impressive Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, which houses a few whale sharks, among other colorful local species.

End your evening along Naha's main drag, Kokusai-dōri, sampling some awamori (sugarcane liquor), traditional Okinawan cuisine, and a live sanshin (three-stringed lute) performance—in typically buoyant Okinawan fashion.

Itinerary #2: Naha Highlights

Evening on Kokusai-dōri

Get to know Naha's heritage sites, make your own traditional-style handicrafts, and shop alongside locals at fresh-food market stalls.

Start by veering off Kokusai-dōri—the main tourism hub—and making your way through the covered market arcades spoking off the boulevard. The arcades are jammed with shops selling sea salt, purple sweet-potato ice cream, and seashell jewelry, but you'll want to aim for the covered halls of Makishi Public Market.

Okinawan cuisine

Here, you'll see Naha residents shopping for freshly caught fish, local produce, and all manner of dried and preserved delicacies. Head up to the top-floor food court to dine at one of a dozen or so tiny restaurants serving udon (thick wheat noodles in broth), sushi, grilled seafood, and other specialties.

After feeding your body, head across town to the Okinawa Prefectural Museum to nourish your mind with a look at thoughtfully curated Okinawan arts, spanning the ancient to the contemporary.

The grounds of Shuri Castle

Spend your second day exploring the grounds and lavishly decorated interior of Shuri Castle. Savor small plates at a traditional restaurant nearby before hopping the monorail back downtown for dinner.

On your last day, if you're museum-ed out, you can skip the small Tsuboya Pottery Museum—still worth a visit if you're game—and peek into the tiny shops along Tsuboya pottery district road, where you'll find both traditional and innovative ceramic designs.

A blue ceramic shisa

Pick up some souvenirs, or simply soak up inspiration for your hands-on handicraft workshop at Naha Traditional Crafts Center. You'll not only have a chance to sculpt clay, dye or weave fabric, or blow glass using traditional Okinawan designs, but you can also take home a memento of your own making.

End your visit at a local izakaya, or Japanese-style pub, to bid a delicious goodbye to Naha.

Itinerary #3: Kerama Islands

A view from the Kerama islands

If you came to Okinawa with a straight-up beach holiday in mind, then stick to southern Okinawa-hontō. The island's northern end certainly boasts some stunning coastlines, but better yet are the tiny Kerama islands, just a short ferry ride from Naha.

Hop a public bus from Naha to Mibaru Beach on your first day. Take a glass-bottomed boat tour of the shallow offshore reef, soak up some sun, or enjoy a leisurely picnic among local beachgoers. With white sand, turquoise waters, and greenery-topped karst rock formations mushrooming out of the water, picturesque Mibaru is mostly undeveloped, but still close enough to Naha for a day trip.

Furuzamami Beach

The next morning, catch a 45-minute ferry from Naha to Zamami Island, and prepare to slow way down. Rent a one-speed bike and ride west on mostly flat roads for less than a mile to Ama Beach, where you'll have a good chance of spotting sea turtles grazing in the shallow water. Or test your legs with an uphill climb to Furuzamami Beach. With its white sand shoreline and crystal-clear waters, it looks better than a postcard.

If underwater exploration is more your thing, several shops in Zamami village offer boat dives. Seasonal whale-watching trips are another highlight. The village is full of small, family-run restaurants and tiny bars where you can grab a meal and meet some friendly locals.  

Coral reefs in Okinawa

Alternatively, or in addition to Zamami, you could catch a ferry to Aka Island, which is smaller, slower, and feels more remote. A couple of shops run regular boat dives, but anyone with a mask and fins can spot plenty of gorgeous sea life by snorkeling the shallows off of Aka's shores.

The long-running favorite is Nishihama, a stretch of clean sand and ever-darkening shades of turquoise and blue waters. Or rent a bike and ride across the bridge to explore the pristine (and even smaller) Geruma Island, which has a population of under 100.

Aka's village has a handful of cafes and little bars, but few are open during slower seasons. You'll have time to look out for petite Kerama deer at dusk and, later at night, take in the vast, starlit sky.

Map

Map of How to Spend 3 Days on Okinawa
Map of How to Spend 3 Days on Okinawa