Until 1879, the subtropical Ryukyu Islands that constitute Japan's southernmost prefecture were a separate (though vassal) kingdom, and the culture shows close affinities with China and Southeast Asia. During the closing days of World War II, the Ryukyu Islands were the site of some of the most hard-fought battles, and many war memorials are in evidence. Okinawa remained occupied until 1972, and large tracts of the main island are still host to U.S. military installations.
Naha, on Okinawa's main island, is the prefectural capital. It has a large market, selling seafood, vegetables and local artifacts. Other tourist sites include the rebuilt Shuri Castle (once home to the Ryukyu ruling family) and its ancient gate, the Shurei-no-Mon. However, for most visitors, the main reason for visiting the islands is to enjoy the beaches and assorted watersports, including diving.
The more remote islands of Ishigaki, Miyako, Taketomi and Iriomote can be visited by boat (or plane) from Okinawa, with Ishigaki serving as the best base for exploring the area. We liked Ishigaki and Iriomote, but found Miyako to be a little too touristy.
Those interested in World War II history should go to Tomigusuku on Okinawa, where the Imperial Navy had its underground headquarters and where 4,000 officers and men committed suicide rather than surrender to U.S. forces. Plan three nights to see these islands.
Located off the coast of Yonaguni, the westernmost island in the chain and only 67 mi/108 km from Taiwan, is a sunken ruin believed to have been constructed for ceremonial purposes 10,000 years ago during the last ice age. Divers discovered it in the 1980s. The ruin sits in 50 ft/15 m of water and is composed of stone terraces and broad steps. Some say these structures are a natural occurrence formed by the earth's movement and underwater currents. Others believe that this is a man-made structure. There are a total of eight underwater structures throughout the Okinawa Prefecture.
Yonaguni has much more for travelers to explore. Hammerhead sharks migrate through the area each year between January and March. Giant cuttlefish and clown fish can also be seen as divers drift with the currents. Water visibility can exceed 150 ft/46 m, and there are 200 species of coral—which are vibrant with a range of colors, including orange, pink and violet. Between May and August, during a full moon, the coral spawn for a spectacular underwater show.
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