Beat the crowds and skip the tourist traps with this guide to the little-known gems in the region.
Okinawa is one of the most interesting places you can visit during a trip to Japan. With an entirely different feel from the rest of the country, people in Okinawa pride themselves on their unique cultural traditions, happily setting themselves apart from the mainland with a different outlook on life, shaped by their unique history and a sub-tropical climate that’s given them beautiful stretches of yellow-sand beaches and an abundance of nature and wildlife.
Like any popular island tourist destination, Okinawa is filled with a host of well-known sites where you can enjoy activities like snorkelling and scuba diving, but there are also plenty of gems to discover off-the-beaten track that well-connected locals tend to keep to themselves. Okinawa Prefecture recently invited us to the northern region of the main island to take a look at some of their lesser-known sites, and we were surprised to discover some of the country’s best-kept secrets tucked away in the most scenic, nature-filled, relaxing environments. Let’s take a look at some of the surprising things to do in the region below!
1. Rub a rock shaped like a pelvis in the island’s oldest region
With such vast tracts of nature, Okinawa’s northern region is filled with “power spots“, a term used in Japan to refer to spiritual places in natural settings that are so powerful they invigorate you and fill you with a sense of energy.
One of the most powerful power spots can be found at Daisekirinzan, a quasi-national park close to Cape Hedo at the very northernmost tip of the main island. According to geologists, the limestone rock formations here were once below water millions of years ago, making this the oldest part of the island.
There are a number of well-marked trails that take visitors through the park, with signboards pointing out some of the most unusual rock formations that bear resemblances to demons, paintings, and animals like alligators.
▼ Can you spot the alligator-shaped rock here?
One of the most popular rocks in the park, though, is one that’s shaped like a pelvis, which women rub in the hopes of becoming pregnant. There’s even a signboard here with a photo of a miracle baby who was born after a wish was made at the rock.
▼ Visitors place coins into the crevices of the child-giving pelvis rock as they take a moment here to rub the stone and pray for children.
After you’ve rubbed the rocky pelvis, you can also be “reborn” by walking through a nearby rock three times. Then it’s on to even more power spots, each with a mysterious spiritual myth of their own, as you make your way out through the ancient Jurassic Park-like environment.
2. Look out for turtle ditches on a walk through the Rainforest
Have you ever seen a turtle ditch? We hadn’t, until our guide from the Yambaru Discovery Forest in Kunigami-son explained what these features were at the side of the road.
These unique carved-out sections appear in ditches alongside roads that run through Yambaru Forest, a national park containing some of the last large surviving tracts of Asian subtropical rainforest. This area is currently being considered for inclusion as a World Heritage Site, due to the fact that it contains many endemic species of flora and fauna not seen on mainland Japan, including the endangered Ryukyu Black-breasted Leaf Turtle.
Image: Wikipedia/Daiju Azuma
Designated a National Natural Monument of Japan in 1975, this rare species of turtle can only be found in a few areas throughout the Okinawa island chain. Turtle ditches have been put in place to ensure that any reptiles who fall into the ditch will be able to free themselves by climbing back up to safety on the sloped incline, helping to protect the species for future generations.
The group helping to preserve the land and wildlife here is the Yambaru Discovery Forest, a centre that offers accommodation, activities, and guided tours in the nature-filled region, and they do a great job of educating visitors about the surrounding environment before they set off on a variety of treks and walking courses.
▼ The “Yonner Course” is an easily accessible walk that takes you through the midst of the rainforest.
The quality of the air here is incredible, and as you walk through the rainforest, you’ll see trees covered in lichens, a well-known indication of good air quality. You’ll also come across beautiful young ferns quietly unfurling, and signboards advising visitors to keep an eye out for native woodpeckers and the nests they create inside the trunks and branches of trees throughout the area.
3. Kayak amongst the mangroves
If you’re looking to enjoy another outdoor activity away from busloads of tourists, then head to the Oura River for a walk above the mangroves and a kayak in amongst them. This type of landscape is rarely seen on mainland Japan, making it an interesting destination, even for Japanese visitors, and the wetlands, which can be viewed from the well-maintained boardwalk, are teeming with wildlife.
The starting point for this eco adventure is the Wansaka Oura Park & Plaza, conveniently located along the Futami Bypass in Nago. From there it’s a short walk to the mangroves, which look dramatically different at low and high tides.
At low tide, it’s possible to join a supervised walk across the hard-packed surface of the river bed, as the mixture of sand and gravel here helps to prevent people sinking into the mud.
As the tide slowly creeps in, however, the landscape transforms, creating the perfect environment for a casual kayaking tour, which takes you up close to the low-growing trees and their impressive root systems.
One Ocean, the company that runs the kayaking tours here, offers a 90-minute course that ranges in price from 2,400 yen (US$22) for children under the age of 4 up to 4,800 yen for adults, so that everyone from beginners to experienced kayakers can explore the unique environment on water. And if you’re lucky, you’ll get to kayak in silence alongside fish-hunting white herons.
4. Go glamping
Yes, the glamorous camping trend has arrived in Okinawa, and nobody is doing it better than Nanma Mui Nature Resort on Yagaji Island in Nago. Here, visitors can stay in a variety of spacious bell-tents with private shower facilities overlooking the emerald-green waters of the Haneji Inland Sea.
Kicking back in a hammock and enjoying a cup of tea or coffee on the private deck while surrounded by birdsong is a great way to immerse yourself in nature.
We were so impressed by Nanma Mui we dedicated a whole write-up to them, so head on over here to find out all the details. With a secluded private beach, and options for sea-kayaking tours, a night here in the great outdoors is an experience you’ll never forget!
5. Enjoy a macrobiotic meal and freebies from the gift shop at Mahaina Wellness Resort
There are plenty of places to stay in the northern region, but Mahaina Wellness Resort deserves a special mention for a number of reasons. Firstly, the rooms are all beautifully appointed, and boast impressive views of the ocean and outdoor pool facilities.
While the accommodation is fantastic, they also have several great restaurants on the premises, including one called “Shinka” that specialises in Japanese and Okinawan cuisine.
Diners here can choose from some delicious options, including shabu shabu hot pot dishes and tempura meal sets, but what surprised us most was the fact that they offer a very special macrobiotic course. The three-part meal starts off with a platter containing nine tasty appetisers, including fruit of the Chinese lantern plant, and local specialties like Mozuku seaweed and sea grapes.
After the appetisers, heartier dishes like brown rice, soba noodles, and tofu are served, followed by fresh fruit to finish. The chance to eat a carefully designed macrobiotic meal is a rarity in all of Japan, let alone Okinawa, so this is a great opportunity for diners to try something different!
Another reason we love Mahaina Wellness Resort is the fact that they’re environmentally conscious. Visitors who stay with them more than one night and decline their included “make up room” service are rewarded with a free 1,000 yen voucher that can be redeemed at the hotel gift shop.
Reimbursing guests with costs saved on staff time and replacement of products that would otherwise be used in making up rooms is a fantastic win-win for everyone. And you don’t have to worry about it being a ploy to get people to spend extra money at the gift shop – you can pick up a packet of Okinawan chinsuko cookies and a gorgeous clay “akagawara” (“red tile”) coaster for less than 1,000 yen.
▼ Totally free! Thanks, Mahaina!
6. Admire the toilet paper plant while on a Nordic Walk
If you’re staying at Mahaina, you can also take part in a range of activities, including nordic walking, which starts at the reasonable price of 1,000 yen. If you haven’t heard of it before, nordic walking enhances the act of walking by adding an upper body workout to the mix with the use of specially designed poles.
While it’s great for a total body workout, this nordic walking tour heads off at a more leisurely pace so visitors can stop and enjoy the sights along the way. One of their popular walking courses takes you around the famous Churaumi Aquarium, to the Native Okinawan Village and the Tropical Dream Village, located in the Ocean Expo Park.
The Okinawan Village is a beautifully laid out assortment of huts showing what day-to-day life would have been like during different time periods in Okinawa’s history.
Here you’ll be able to spend some time with one of the local ladies, who greets visitors with sweets and a song on the sanshin, a traditional three-stringed Okinawan instrument.
Lovers of flowers will be thrilled with the displays during a walk through the Tropical Dream Centre, where a huge number of orchids and tropical plants fill your senses with colour and aroma.
One of their newer walking courses takes you through the breathtaking Bise-fukugi Tree Road. Located right beside the beach, this kilometre-long sand-covered path is lined with approximately 20,000 fukugi trees.
Used as windbreaks in Okinawa since ancient times, these trees, also known as “fuku wo yobu ki” or “good fortune trees“, provide shelter for the many residences that can be found in the area.
Visitors here should keep an eye out for some interesting plants that can be seen alongside the walking path, including one that’s used to make the sanshin three-stringed instrument.
And this one, called Obagi, which can be used as a natural alternative to toilet paper, thanks to its baby-soft leaf.
7. Make your own purple tart
Okinawa has a number of particularly well-known specialties, so the chance to make one of these yourself is an opportunity you shouldn’t miss while travelling around the northern region. One of the souvenirs synonymous with Okinawa is the hugely popular beniimo tart, a baked purple sweet potato pastry so beloved throughout Japan it consistently ranks as one of the country’s favourite souvenirs.
▼ Purple sweet potato goods reign supreme in the region.
Okashi Goten in Onna is known as the home of the original beniimo tart, and while its ground floor is filled with sweets and souvenirs, up on the first floor you can try your hand at making one of these tarts on your own, in a beautiful workspace that has expansive views over the sea.
To make the experience as fuss-free as possible, the owners have everything prepared for visitors when they arrive. There are balls of dough for the base of the tart already placed in their moulds…
▼ And easy to follow instructions in English.
To make the tarts, visitors simply spread the balls of dough out evenly over the base of the moulds…
And then follow the advice given by the friendly instructor, who knows all the secrets to creating a delicious sweet potato tart.
After learning about several ways to fill the tart with the sweet potato cream to achieve a professional-looking result, it’s time to pipe the purple goodness out onto the shells, and then hand them over to staff, who will bake them for you while you enjoy the shop downstairs or relaxing at the beautiful beach just outside the building.
The two-hour experience costs between 1,540-2,160 yen and requires a reservation by phone by 5:00 p.m. on the day prior to your visit. For even more of a personal touch, guests can also decorate their boxed packages, and once everything is finished, you’ll have a beautiful set like this to take home to share with family and friends!
8. Make island tofu in an abandoned school
Another enticing handmade experience can be found at Aiai Farm, which has been set up at a unique location in the Nakajin area: on the grounds of an abandoned school. Opened in 2014, Aiai Farm is a unique facility that consists of shops, conference facilities, allotments, a restaurant, and even accommodation, all using the former classrooms and buildings of Yugawa Elementary School, which closed down in 2011.
One of the old classrooms is now a designated workshop space where visitors can learn how to make a variety foods like miso soup, Okinawan soba, sausages, and island tofu.
Their most popular workshop is the island tofu-making experience, which costs roughly 1,800 yen per person, including ingredients and a finished product that participants can take home. Stepping into the workshop area is a treat for both Japanese and foreign visitors, as it’s just like going back to home economics class at school.
▼ Making the tofu is surprisingly simple, as all the ingredients come pre-measured and already prepared for you.
All you have to do is pop the cooked soybeans into a blender, then use a muslin cloth to strain all the white liquid out into a bowl. The liquid then goes into a big pot until it reaches the rquired temperature, and that’s when the nigiri starter is added, slowly solidifying the mix, which can then be eaten hot in little bowls.
The rest of the mix is then spooned out into a muslin-lined rectangular mould, before being pressed by hand a number of times to drain out all the water.
After a few minutes of hand-pressing, you’re left with a block of freshly made tofu that looks just like the type you see in stores!
While it looks store-bought, it tastes a million times better. Nothing beats the taste of freshly made tofu, and Okinawa’s island variety has a salty kick to it that makes it even more unique.
So there you have it, 8 surprising things to do in Okinawa’s beautiful northern region. Whether you’re travelling on your own or with family, friends, or a special someone, we hope these tips help you get the most out of a trip to the area, and if you have any secret discoveries of your own to share, be sure to let us know in the comments section below!