Diving Deep Into Japan’s History

Okinawa offers history and culture on both land and sea By: Sue Richter
Shuri Castle was reconstructed after World War II. // © 2010 Kabacchi
Shuri Castle was reconstructed after World War II. // © 2010 Kabacchi

Destination Resources

Getting There
Most flights to Okinawa route through Tokyo or Osaka. Japan Airlines, United Airlines, All Nippon Airways and American Airlines are a few airlines that offer service to Okinawa.

From Naha, Okinawa, to Yonaguni, clients can fly a 30-minute jaunt or take a four-hour boat ride. Airfare is around $340 roundtrip and boat fare is $95.

Where to Stay
Naha, the capital of Okinawa, has accommodations ranging from the luxurious to the budget-friendly. High-end clients can check out The Naha Terrace (www.terrace.co.jp). A mid-range option is the Okinawa Harbourview Crowne Plaza (www.crowneplaza.com), and the Hotel Hokke Club Naha Shintoshin is budget-friendly.

What to Do
Reef Encounters International is located between Naha and Nago City in Chatan. The owner, Doug Bennett, is fluent in English and Japanese. They offer trips to Yonaguni and local dives.
E-mail: doug@reefencounters.org

Okinawa, Japan, is a place of history, beauty and honor. It is home to subtropical forests, coral reefs, sunken ships and ruins. It is a hidden paradise of warm, clear water waiting to be explored by both snorkelers and scuba divers of any level.

The Okinawa archipelagos are comprised of 160 islands formed by coral and volcanic activity. They are located between the East China Sea and the Pacific Ocean, 500 miles east of Shanghai and 750 miles south of Japan proper. Its history is rich and intriguing, dating back some 10,000 years.

Located off the coast of Yonaguni, the westernmost island in the chain and only 67 miles 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 feet of water and is comprised of stone terraces and broad steps. Some say these structures are a natural occurrence formed by the earth’s movement and underwater currents. Others, including Dr. Sean Kingsley, a marine archaeologist, 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 than just underwater ruins, however. 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 feet here, 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.

Off of the main island of Okinawa, there are other historic dive sites to explore, as well as eco-tours in the lush subtropical jungles and 15th-century castles.

The USS Emmons, a naval destroyer, sunk off of the northwestern coast of Okinawa on April 6, 1945, when five Japanese pilots pummeled the ship, leaving her listless. It initially sunk in 240 feet of water but, due to typhoons in the area, the ship moved into shallower waters (145 feet deep) where it was discovered in 2001.

Beyond the Sea
From the 15th century to the 19th century, the archipelagos were known as the Ryukyu Kingdom, an independent nation that wisely learned how to bridge cultural and political bridges with China, Japan and Korea. The Shuri Castle was home to the king and acted as the main political and economic hub for Ryukyu. This castle is open to the public and can be toured. The castle was nearly destroyed during World War II; however, the architectural plans were preserved, and the castle was rebuilt as an exact replicate. There are a few original stone walls and underground storehouses that remain from the 15th century.

From the beginning of time, nature and the Okinawan spirit have been synonymous. Eco-tours are available to explore the mangrove forests, waterfalls, rare plants and animals indigenous to the islands. The Kerama islands are just 20 miles southwest of the main island and provide great day trips. This group of islands provides world-class snorkeling, diving and kayaking.

Each season of the year brings special focus to nature in Okinawa Prefecture. During January and February, whale watching and cherry blossoms are spectacular; during the spring, marlin and sailfish abound; summer brings the coral blooms underwater; and fall sees the reenactment parade and festival at Shurijo Castle.

Visitors should expect to spend at least four days here and consider staying for up to 10. There is much to see and learn on these islands of wonder. 

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