By Spencer Spellman, on February 10, 2014

Cultural immersion in Okinawa

When I went to Okinawa, Japan, for my first trip to Asia, I expected to learn a ton about Japanese culture. What I didn’t know: The island of Okinawa has a separate, rich culture all its own.

As the southernmost prefecture in all of Japan (it comprises hundreds of the Ryukyu islands), Okinawa has a long, vast history that dates back hundreds of years. With just a few days to explore, I hired a local guide and translator and set out to figure out what it is about Okinawa that has made it home to some of the oldest people in the world.

Okinawa Prefectural Museum

My Okinawa trip started in Naha, the capital and largest city. This is where air travelers land, and really is an ideal start for a first-time traveler to Okinawa, since it provides great context for learning about the culture of the island. One of the best places to get this context is the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. One-part art gallery, one-part history museum, this attraction walks visitors through the history of Okinawa. It was here that I first learned about Okinawa’s renowned “castles,” which really were palaces, and not what I traditionally thought of when I heard the term, “castles.”

Shuri Castle

The grounds of Shuri Castle

I applied my knowledge of castles across town at Shuri Castle. The place dates back several hundred years, and formerly was a palace of the Ry?ky? Kingdom. Today it is one of the most renowned and visited landmarks on Okinawa. While the castle tells the story of Okinawa’s historic past, it also features beautiful panoramic views of modern-day Naha and beyond. The castle also is convenient to several other nearby landmarks, including Shureimon, which is the main gate, as well as the Tamaudun Mauseoleum, the royal tombs located a couple blocks away.

Makishi Public Market

I think one of the best ways to observe and learn about a culture is to spend time in a local market. My experience at Makishi Public Market in Naha was no exception. Makishi had items that I didn’t even know existed, such a Okinawan doughnuts, eclectic artwork, and more seafood then you can shake a stick at. I loved walking up the aisles of the market and sampling fare from local vendors. Because the market is so large–it was one of the biggest I’ve ever visited–I ended up making an entire day of it. After the market, I walked around the area, checking out local hotels, restaurants, and even one of Okinawa’s few brewpubs, Helios. 

Food and Drink

When I arrived to Okinawa, I expected to eat my fill of sushi and wash it all down with sake. What I found, however, was that Okinawan cuisine has influences from China, Southeast Asia, and even the United States (because of the military base). One of my favorite food items: Taco rice, a tortilla-less taco served over a bed of rice. More traditional cuisine on Okinawa includes soba, which is the local version of noodle soup. 

Viewfinder Tip: If you don’t know Japanese, consider hiring a guide who can translate for you (I hired a guide for half my trip).

The local drink scene was a pleasant surprise. Yes, I found plenty of sake in restaurants around Okinawa, but the island has its own distilled beverage, named Awamori. This potent libation is a spirit made with long-grain Indica rice. Traditionally, it is served with ice and water; in recent years, innovative bartenders have started using Awamori in cocktails. For a first-hand experience of what goes into this popular drink, get a tour and tasting of Zuisen, one of Okinawa’s most notable Awamori distilleries.


My final foray into Okinawa’s culture came at the hands of a former student of Mr. Miyagi (yes, the “Wax on, wax off” Mr. Miyagi, from The Karate Kid). Unbeknownst to me, karate actually originated in Okinawa, and karate masters, students, and locals take pride in knowing that millions of people all over the world since have learned the sport. If you ever have ever wanted to take a karate lesson or experience karate culture firsthand, Okinawa is the place to do it. There’s even a karate-themed bar in Naha, Dojo Bar.

What’s your favorite part of Japanese culture?