Okinawa Prefecture, an archipelago of 160 islands between Kyushu and Taiwan, seems like its own country. Maybe that's because once upon a time, it was its own kingdom -- the Ryukyu Kingdom -- with dynasties and castles (constructed mostly btw. the 14th-18th c.), as well as its own languages, culture, and cuisine. Although it was invaded by Satsuma (in what is now Kagoshima in southern Kyushu) in the early 1600s, the Ryukyu Kingdom retained domestic autonomy, trading freely with China and elsewhere, until it was annexed to Japan after the 1868 Meiji Restoration; in 1879 it was renamed Okinawa Prefecture.

You might know Okinawa as a site of brutal combat during World War II (several sites and memorials recount the horrific battle and massive casualties). If you're a diver, you might know Okinawa as one of the best diving spots in the world. But what I've always liked about Okinawa -- apart from its unique museums, historic sites, tropical weather, and the finest beaches I've seen in Japan -- is its laid-back, rural atmosphere. In fact, parts of Okinawa are so off the beaten path, they seem like they're caught in a time warp of a few decades past.

Of Okinawa's 160 islands (part of the Ryukyu Island chain), only 40 some are inhabited. The largest, Okinawa Island (Okinawa-honto), is home to Naha, capital of Okinawa Prefecture and gateway to the rest of the islands by sea and by air. After visiting Okinawa Island's many attractions, you might wish to fly or take a ferry onward to one or more of my other favorites, like Kume Island, renowned for its beaches, sugar cane fields, and historic sites relating to the Ryukyu Kingdom. Iriomote is famous for its vast pristine wilderness and for scuba diving.

Information on Okinawa is available at and

Okinawa Island

1,539km (956 miles) SW of Tokyo

On April 1, 1945, Allied forces landed on Okinawa Island in an attempt to seize control of the island and use it as a base for an invasion of mainland Japan. The Battle of Okinawa, the only land battle on Japanese territory, raged for the next 82 days, with many Japanese troops and drafted Okinawans, including high-school students, ensconced in the island's many caves. By the time the horrific fighting was over, more than 200,000 people had lost their lives. Just a few weeks later, after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese surrendered.

Okinawa was then placed under control of the U.S. government until 1972, when sovereignty reverted back to Japan. Remaining, however, are American military bases, which were greatly expanded during the Korean War and that occupy land that had belonged to Okinawans for generations (75% of American bases in Japan are in Okinawa). Many protests have been lodged against the U.S. presence, especially following rapes of local women and girls by U.S. servicemen; as part of ongoing negotiations, some 8,000 troops will transfer from Okinawa to Guam in 2014.

Okinawa Island has a number of sites and attractions that make a 2- or 3-day stay particularly worthwhile, including nine castle sites dating from the Ryukyu Kingdom era that are on the UNESCO World Heritage list, a world-class aquarium, a theme park containing Japan's second-longest limestone cave and exhibits related to Okinawa history and culture, and several memorials for victims of the Battle of Okinawa. There are also more lighthearted pursuits, including shopping and dining in downtown Naha, sunning and swimming on the island's many white sandy beaches, and snorkeling and scuba diving among the island's surrounding coral reefs.