The prefecture of Okinawa comprises more than one hundred islands, stretching over 700km of ocean from Kyushu southwest to Yonaguni-jima, almost within sight of Taiwan. Collectively known as the Ryukyu Shoto , this chain of subtropical islands, with their lush vegetation, paradise beaches and superb coral reefs, has become a popular destination for Japanese holiday-makers and foreign residents alike. Few other tourists make it down here, partly because of the time and cost involved, but if you've had your fill of shrines and temples, want to check out some of Japan's best beaches and dive sites , or simply fancy a spot of winter sun, then Okinawa is well worth considering.
The largest island in the group, Okinawa-Honto , usually referred to simply as Okinawa, is the region's transport hub and home to its prefectural capital, Naha . It's also the most heavily populated and developed of the Ryukyu chain, thanks largely to the controversial presence of American military bases . While it's the remoter islands that are worth concentrating on - particularly the Yaeyama group centred around Ishigaki-jima - Okinawa-Honto boasts a number of historical sights, many of them associated with the Battle of Okinawa at the end of the Pacific War . But the island has more to offer, particularly in its northern region, where the old way of life still survives among the isolated villages.
To see the best of the region, you have to hop on a plane or ferry and explore the dozens of outer islands , many of which are uninhabited. Even quite close to Naha, you'll find gorgeous beaches and fantastic dive spots around the Kerama islands , just 30km off the main island. Divers and beach connoisseurs will want to visit Miyako-jima and Ishigaki-jima , way down the Ryukyu chain, where tiny star-shaped shells dust the sand. If you're looking for an idyllic retreat, Taketomi-jima can't be beaten, while the adventurous will want to explore Iriomote-jima , coated in thick groves of mangrove and steamy rainforest and home to the elusive Iriomote lynx.
It's on these outer islands that you'll also find the strongest evidence of the much-vaunted Ryukyu culture , born of contact with Taiwan and China, as well as Japan. The most obvious features are different types of food a vibrant use of colour, and bold, tropical patterns, while the Chinese influence is clearly visible in the architecture, traditional dress and the martial art of karate - the Ryukyu warriors preferred mode of protection. Ancient religious beliefs are kept alive by shamen (called yuta ) and, on Okinawa-Honto, there are sumo bouts between bulls. There's also a Ryukyu dialect, with dozens of variations between the different islands, unique musical instruments, and a distinctive musical style which has captured an international audience through bands such as Nenes, Diamantes and Champloose. If you're lucky, you'll stumble on a local festival, such as giant rope tug-of-war contests or dragon-boat races, while the biggest annual event is the Eisa festival (15th of the seventh lunar month) when everyone downs tools and dances to the incessant rhythms of drums, flutes and the three-stringed sanshin .
Those in search of local crafts will find beautiful Bingata textiles the most appealing. Originally reserved for court ladies, Bingata fabrics are hand-dyed with natural pigments from hibiscus flowers and various vegetables, in simple but striking patterns. Also worth searching out are the fine jofu cloths of Miyako-jima and the Yaeyama Islands, once gifted in tribute to the local monarchs. Ceramics are thought to have been introduced to the region from Spain and Portugal in the fifteenth century, but Ryukyu potters concentrated on roof tiles and fairly rustic utensils. Nowadays, they churn out thousands of sake flasks and shiisa - the ferocious lion figures that glare down at you from every rooftop. The exquisite local lacquerware has a long history in the islands, too, having been introduced over 500 years ago from China, but the glassware you'll find is much more recent: it's said production took off in the postwar years when Okinawans set about recycling the drinks bottles of the occupying US forces.
Besides Hokkaido, Okinawa contains Japan's largest areas of unspoilt natural environment and greatest biodiversity. Much of this wealth of wildlife is underwater, spawned by the warm Kuroshio current that sweeps up the east coast and allows coral reefs to flourish. But on land, too, there are a number of unique species, including turtles, a crested eagle and the noguchigera (Pryer's woodpecker), in addition to Iriomote's wild cat, the yamaneko. A less welcome local resident is the highly poisonous habu snake . It measures around 2m in length, is dark green with a yellow head, and usually lurks in dense vegetation or on roadsides, though rarely ventures into urban areas. As long as you're careful - especially during spring and autumn - you should have no problems, but if you are bitten, make for the nearest hospital where they should have anti-venom.
With its subtropical climate , Okinawa stays warm throughout the year. Average annual temperatures are around 23°C, with a winter average of 17°C and a minimum of 10°C. Winter lasts from December through February, while the hot, humid summer starts in April and continues into September. Temperatures at this time hover around 34°C and the sun can be pretty intense, though the sea breezes help. The best time to visit is in spring or autumn, roughly March to early May and late September to December. The rainy season lasts from early May to early June, while typhoons can be a problem in July and August, and occasionally into October.
One of the more unusual ways of getting to Okinawa - and Japan - is to take the international ferry from Taiwan via Ishigaki and Miyako islands to Naha . By far the majority of visitors, however, arrive by plane. Most come from the Japanese mainland, though there are international flights to Naha from Taiwan, Korea and Hong Kong. Domestic airlines operate between Naha and Tokyo, Osaka and a number of other Japanese cities , while a few fly direct to Ishigaki and Miyako. Though flying can be expensive, discounts are becoming increasingly common, so it's always worth asking the airlines and travel agents. Overseas visitors can also take advantage of the airpasses offered by JAL and ANA .
The other option is a local ferry from Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe or one of several cities on Kyushu. All of these services stop in Naha, from where some continue to Miyako and Ishigaki . These ferries can be a great way to travel if you're not in a hurry, though horribly crowded in the peak summer season.
Getting around between islands presents a similar choice between air and sea, with Naha as the main hub. Inter-island flights are operated by Japan Transocean Air (JTA), Ryukyu Air Commuter (RAC) and Air Nippon (ANK), with connections to all the major islands. The ferry network, on the other hand, fans out from Naha's three terminals to every corner of the prefecture, allowing you to island-hop at your leisure. See individual island accounts for more about these sailings.