A far cry from Tokyo’s bright neon lights and the buzzy cultural capital of Kyoto, Japan’s southernmost island of Okinawa—the largest in a chain of 160 subtropical islands between mainland Japan and Taiwan in the East China Sea—has developed the nickname the “Hawaii of Japan” thanks to its warm to moderate year-round climate.
While the abundance of world class diving sites teeming with coral reefs and five-star beach resorts has contributed to the allure of Okinawa’s reputation as an adventure lover’s destination, for many Westerners, this writer included, the island is perhaps best known for the bloody three-month battle that took place on these shores at the end of World War II.
A self-described Japanophile, I’ve spent a lot of time traveling across Japan over the years, so admittedly, my inaugural visit to Okinawa in February, which came at the invitation of The Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO), involved a bit of a learning curve.
Once an independent nation known as the Ryukyu Kingdom, the islands thrived for more than 450 years before officially being designated as Japanese territory and renamed Okinawa in 1879. Following its occupation by the US from 1945-1972, Okinawa’s sovereignty was restored; however, reminders of its wartime past are omnipresent with every whir of a helicopter and KFC in downtown Naha. Today, there’s even an American Village in central Okinawa with an “American-themed” outdoor mall, restaurants, movie theater, and even a bar called Cheers, although the lack of a TGI Fridays or Cheesecake Factory really makes me question the village’s authenticity.
While I left this beguiling destination with a much deeper sense of appreciation than when I went in, to fully understand the complexity and beauty that abounds here, you have to be willing to peel back the layers.
Unlike Hawaii, which has been the subject of widespread over-tourism in recent years, Okinawa lacks in the abundance and accessibility of traditional tours that Western travelers might be accustomed to. That’s not a bad thing, but there are still a handful of tours you can sign up for including a city tour around Naha, as well as a number of reputable scuba and snorkeling outfits around the island. But if you’re really looking to dig into the culture that abounds in Okinawa, I found the best way to do it in earnest is with the help of the island’s hotels.
Offering a unique and immersive glimpse into Okinawa’s past, present, and future, from learning about the spiritual and cultural significance of the Ryukyu islands at Halekulani, to experiencing a Blue Zone stay at Hoshinoya and a sustainable treehouse deep in the heart of the Yambaru National forest, these three hotels will help you get to the spirit and soul of Okinawa on your next visit.
Soba the spirit of Okinawa at Halekulani
Framing one of the island’s most beautiful stretches of shoreline, Halekulani Okinawa is a sprawling 32-acre property that takes its name from Hawaiian phrase for “house befitting heaven.” As the Okinawan offspring of the eponymous Hawaii-based brand, with nine restaurants and bars, five swimming pools, and temple of all things serenity and wellness at Spa Halekulani, you could never leave these gorgeous grounds and be completely satisfied. The hotel also happens to be located near some of the best snorkeling and diving spots on the island, which is an added bonus.
The best place to start and end your day at Halekulani is at the all-day dining concept House Without A Key, whose sprawling buffet includes a mix of Okinawan-styles dishes and soba noodle station which is not to be missed. Okinawan soba is unique to soba on mainland Japan thanks to the use of flour instead of buckwheat.
With the guidance of Dr. Masashi Arakawa, a leading expert in wellness tourism research at Ryukyu University, the hotel has curated a number of experiences called “Halekulani Okinawa Escapes,” all of which are ideal for guests eager to explore the historical and spiritual side of Okinawa.
As the first ever participant on the “Discover The Island’s Umui (Spirit),” I spent the better part of my first day on the island exploring some of the most spiritually significant sites, including Sefa Utaki, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where the goddess of who created the Ryukyu Islands first arrived to Tamagusuku Gusuku, the oldest castle in Okinawa and final place of spiritual pilgrimage for locals during the Ryukyu Kingdom era.
Considered the birthplace of karate, Halekulani also offers programs like Discover the Island’s Mabui (Soul), which will introduce you to the traditional Okinawan style of karate with master Mr. Ippei Yagi, while teaching you all about the islands long and storied history. Guided by a local naturalist, this summer Halekulani will also be offering a new program called Discover The Island’s Glow in Yanbaru National Park where guests can kayak through scenic mangroves in the summer.
Dive into the Blue Zone at Hoshinoya
Occupying a narrow stretch of western coastline in the charming local village of Yomitan, from the moment you set foot in the modern “underwater” lobby concept and emerge into the gorgeous gardens and grounds of Hoshinoya Okinawa it’s as if you’ve been transported to another planet entirely. (Famous for its pottery, Yomitan is also a popular spot for tourists in Okinawa and you won’t leave here emptyhanded—just don’t forget to bring plenty of yen.)
Okinawa is home to one of the five Blue Zones, and in 2021, the hotel launched an “Okinawa Blue Zone Stay,” with the aim of sharing the secrets behind a long and healthy life with guests. As a willing participant of this experience, (who doesn’t want to learn the secrets to a long and healthy life?) after enjoying a traditional hot pot meal of local vegetables and tofu in the comfort of my second story villa, I was delighted to learn that drinking (in moderation) a local spirit called Awamori while being serenaded by a traditional Sanshin guitar player on the beach is actually a healthy exercise, and one that I enjoyed very much.
At the heart of Hoshinoya, an activity studio is the perfect place to try your hand at morning karate classes or evening meditation, all of which are offered and included to guests daily along with a handful of activities from a morning horseback ride on the beach to private Ryukyu Karate lessons. The hotels beautiful infinity pool overlooking the East China Sea is easily the best spot on-property to catch the sunset.
At the on-site restaurant, chef Shigeru Masai cooks up a seasonally inspired fusion of Sicilian-meets-Okinawan cuisine and the nightly tasting menu is nothing short of spectacular. Breakfast, which is divided by a Ryukyu menu and a Sicilian menu (I opted for Ryukyu both mornings) includes plenty of local vegetables as well as Yushi tofu, local pork (a local specialty), and Awamori simmered fish. Don’t miss a chance to try every single one of the freshly squeezed juices which changed daily and were always a delight.
Before you go, and you certainly won’t want to, make sure you take a short and leisurely stroll through the grounds and gardens until you reach Banta Café. Easily the most beautiful coffee shop I’ve ever been to, pull up a chair and nosh on a pork and egg onigiri, and if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, order the house specialty BukuBuku Jelly Soda for a gelatinous journey of taste and texture like you’ve never experienced before.
Adventure abounds at the Treeful Treehouse
In the northern reaches of the island, Yambaru National Park is home to Treeful Treehouse, a sustainable resort that opened in 2021, the same year that Yambaru received its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Nicknamed the “miracle forest” thanks to its natural preservation of endemic and rare flora and fauna, Yambaru is a treasure trove of wildlife and biodiversity. The hotel recently started offering guests The Yanbaru Unbelievable View Tour, which starts with a bento box full of fresh Okinawan vegetables and tempura chicken skewers that are best enjoyed alongside a waterfall followed by an exhilarating ride through the forest on “Bob” an eight-wheeled submersible tank.
At night, post up on the treehouse’s designated “party deck,” which is without a doubt the perfect place to enjoy a few local beers or glasses of Awamori over a hot pot of local Agu pork and vegetables. Set amongst the mangroves in one of the most idyllic and remote locations on the island, from guided treks up the Genka River to collecting acorns for Treeful’s resident goat, Donna, there’s no better place to soak up the majesty of this beautiful island than this.