From cherry blossoms to drum dances and eco tourism, there is much to see and do on the many islands of Okinawa.
1 Cherry blossoms — in January
Escape the crowds (and inflated prices) of cherry blossom season in mainland Japan - cherry blossom viewing is much more relaxed in Japan's southern-most prefecture. There are no sake-soaked picnics on blankets of blooms here; Okinawans prefer to wander along streets and paths lined with the flowering trees. And because subtropical Okinawa is closer to Taiwan than Tokyo, it's also the first place in Japan to get cherry blossoms, between mid-January and early February. One of the best viewing spots is the floodlit 700-year-old Nakijin Castle, which opens at night during cherry blossom season. okinawastory.jp.
Okinawa comprises more than 160 islands, 49 of them inhabited, stretching 1000 kilometres south-west from Kyushu to Taiwan. Twenty-five of the islands are accessible by plane or ferry: the 14 Kerama islands (which include Okinawa Island), the four Miyako islands and, only 120 kilometres from Taiwan, the seven Yaeyama islands (such as the jungle-clad Iriomote Island; Ishigaki Island, famous for its beef; and Taketomi Island, which has well-preserved Okinawan villages). JAL's Okinawa Island Pass has flights between five of the main islands for just $93 a sector. okinawastory.jp/en
3 Canaan Slow Farm
One of the best places to experience Okinawa's relaxed pace is Canaan Slow Farm, a new organic cafe and eco-stay guesthouse on Okinawa Island's north-west coast. It also hosts WOOFers (Willing Workers on Organic Farms, a worldwide movement where people volunteer at organic farms in exchange for food and board).
Ancestor worship is big in Okinawa and the mother of all ancestors, literally, is the goddess Amamikyo, who came down to earth at Kudaka Island, off the south-eastern tip of Okinawa Island. From there, she flew to nearby Sefa-utaki, the most sacred site in Okinawa and one of Okinawa's nine World Heritage-listed sites; it's a peacefully eerie forest setting where two house-size boulders lean against each other to form a triangular cave you can walk through for a view of Kudaka Island.
It wasn't by chance that Mr Miyagi in the Karate Kid movies came from the Okinawa chain of islands. Karate originated in Okinawa - known as the Ryukyu Kingdom until it became part of Japan in 1879 - when the Ryukyu king banned weapons, forcing locals to defend themselves with their bare hands. It spread to mainland Japan in the early 1900s, then to the rest of the world, but Okinawa remains the best place to learn authentic karate-do (literally "way of the open hand"). Murasakimura cultural village in Yomitan has English-speaking instructors; a one-hour lesson costs $26 including a stiff white outfit and the novice's white belt. facebook.com/oshukaisohonbu.
Okinawa's diving is hard to beat, with warm water (up to 30 degrees in summer), visibility up to 40 metres and marine life galore. The Kerama islands and Ishigaki Island are famous for their manta rays, Miyako Island has Japan's largest coral reefs and you can dive with more than 100 hammerhead sharks off Yonaguni Island (January-March). Yonaguni, which is a 90-minute flight from Naha, also has mysterious underwater ruins discovered only in 1987 and believed to be an 8000-year-old temple. reefencounters.org.
7 Kokusai Street
If Okinawa is Japan's Hawaii, Naha (population 320,000) is its Honolulu. A stroll along the main drag, Kokusai Street ("International Street"), reminds you that Okinawa is also Japan's top domestic tourism destination, attracting 6 million Japanese tourists a year. This palm tree-lined street, which closes to traffic on Sundays, has a dizzying array of souvenir shops, restaurants, bars and market stalls. Typical souvenirs include Ryukyu glass, shisa (see below) and Hawaiian-style "aloha" shirts called kariyushi or happiness shirts. naha-navi.or.jp.
8 Churaumi Aquarium
The highlight of Churaumi Aquarium in central Okinawa is standing in front of Kuroshio Sea tank (named after the warm ocean current that flows north beside Okinawa like a Japanese Gulf Stream) watching thousands of fish, big and small, including three whale sharks. It's like watching a living movie screen: the glass wall is 22.5 metres high, 8.5 metres wide and 60 centimetres thick (though one wonders whether a tank 35 metres long, 27 metres wide and 10 metres deep can be roomy enough for an 8.5-metre whale shark). Admission costs $18, $13 after 4pm (the aquarium closes at 8pm, March-September). oki-churaumi.jp.
Okinawa's answer to garden gnomes, these Chinese-inspired stone or ceramic dragon-dog-lions can be seen on every gatepost, sometimes on rooftops, too, always in twos - the right one with its mouth open, the left with its mouth closed - to keep evil spirits away.
10 Old ladies
Okinawan women have the longest life expectancy in the world (86 years; Okinawan men live to about 78) and they live the longest in Ogimi. This village in northern Okinawa Island has 139 women (and 33 men) over 90 years of age, and the oldest woman to live here was 114 when she died a few years ago. Want whatever they're having? Order a Longevity Lunch at Emi no mise (literally "Emi's shop"), a restaurant in Ogimi that specialises in set meals of life-prolonging local foods such as seaweed, goya (a cucumber-like vegetable), tofu and turmeric. eminomise.com.
11 Eisa drum dance
A must-see summertime attraction, Eisa drum dances - which date back to the 17th century as a way to send off one's ancestors to the afterlife - happen all over Okinawa between July and September. They're vibrantly colourful affairs involving singers and clowns as well as drummers and dancers. The biggest are the 10,000 Eisa Dance Parade in Naha in August, and the All-Okinawa Eisa Festival in Okinawa City, which attracts 300,000 spectators over three days in September. okinawastory.jp.
In the far north of Okinawa Island, a mountainous region called Yanbaru has some of the most pristine subtropical rainforests in Asia, and a growing ecotourism industry. Ufugi Nature Museum ("ufugi" means "big tree" in Okinawan) has information (in English as well as Japanese) on the area's flora and fauna. There are walking trails and guided canoeing, hiking and bird-watching day trips run by the non-profit Kunigami Tourism Association. For a wilder experience, Iriomote Island (an hour's flight and a 35-minute ferry ride from Naha) is regarded as the "Galapagos of the East". kuta-okinawa.org.
13 Little America
Take a stroll down Okinawa City's Gate 2 Street - so named because it leads to the gate of Kadena, the largest US Air Force base in the Asia-Pacific region - and you could be forgiven for feeling you're not in Okinawa any more. This "little America" has everything from nightclubs and tattoo parlours with names such as Chicago and Wall Street, to taco restaurants, drive-through Starbucks, diners offering home-made apple pies and "the best grilled cheese", and even an embroidery shop that makes patches for NASA.
14 War and peace
Thanks to one of the most tragic episodes in Okinawa's history - the 90-day Battle of Okinawa, during which a quarter of the population died, many in mass suicides - Okinawa, like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has become a beacon of peace. Peace-oriented landmarks include: Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum, Himeyuri Peace Museum (dedicated to 220 girls and women conscripted as nurses) and the Cornerstone of Peace (black slabs inscribed with the names of the 240,931 people who died in the battle, civilian and military, Japanese and foreign). okinawastory.jp/en.
The local firewater, awamori, is distilled from rice and black mould - think of it as the lovechild of sake and blue cheese - adopting techniques that came from Thailand centuries ago. There are more than 40 distilleries, many offering tastings (mostly just in Japanese). Then there's habushu, a stronger type of awamori believed to heighten the libido by harnessing the vitality of Okinawa's most venomous snake, the habu. A large jar of habushu, still containing one or two of these pit vipers, can sell for more than $650.
16 Ryukyu glass
After the Second World War, resourceful Okinawans started cutting down old Coke bottles left behind by US troops, to make glasses and vases. Thick glass with air bubbles in rainbow colours is now a trademark of Ryukyu glass, one of five traditional Okinawan crafts (the others are lacquerware, pottery, dyeing and weaving). Ryukyu Glass Craft in Itoman is the largest glass factory in Okinawa and has a glass museum, a glass shop and glass-making workshops. ryukyu-glass.co.jp.
In keeping with their healthy lifestyles, Okinawans love to run and ride. The biggest events, which are open to visitors as well as locals, are the Tour de Okinawa in November (tour-de-okinawa.jp), the Naha Marathon in December (naha -marathon.jp/en), the Okinawa Marathon in February (okinawa-marathon.com) and the Strongman Triathlon on Miyako Island (www.miyako-net.ne.jp/~strong) and Ishigaki Triathlon (ishigakijima-triathlon.jp), both in April.
18 Hyakuna Garan
Built into a cliff overlooking the sea, Okinawa's newest luxury hotel resembles a Zen Buddhist monastery, on the outside. Inside, it is the epitome of peace and calm, while promoting the best of Okinawa - from its natural beauty and architecture to its history (there's a gallery of Ryukyu historical figures) and its food. The restaurant is open to non-guests for lunch from 11.30am to 2.30pm (set menus start at $35) and for dinner (set menus $125). hyakunagaran.com.
19 Shuri Castle
A short monorail ride from Naha, on a hill overlooking the capital, is Okinawa's former capital: Shuri Castle. For 450 years, from 1429 to 1879, this was the political, economic and cultural centre of the Ryukyu Kingdom. The castle was destroyed in the Battle of Okinawa and rebuilt in 1992 - complete with vermilion-red Chinese-style gates, making it different to castles on mainland Japan. It was World Heritage listed in 2000. oki-park.jp/shurijo-park/english.
20 The world's biggest tug-of-war
Believed to have started in the 1700s as a contest between two villages, the Naha Great Tug-of-War festival is held every October and is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's largest. Everyone's invited to join the 15,000-person throng (watched by up to 280,000 spectators) pulling on seven-metre ropes attached to the main rope, which is 200 metres long, two metres in diameter and weighs more than 40 tonnes. Afterwards, you can take home a piece of the rope, for good luck. naha-otsunahiki.org/en.
The writer was a guest of Okinawa Convention and Visitor Bureau, Hyakuna Garan and Japan Airlines.