Stretched over 1,000 km from the southern tip of Kyūshū until 100 km east of Taiwan, the Ryūkyū Islands, more commonly known as Okinawa, is Japan's top beach & resort destination.
Its position in between China and Japan forced the kings of Okinawa to pay tribute either to China (fro 1372 to the late 19th century), or Japanese rule since it was officially made a prefecture in 1879, or even the American occupation from 1945 to 1972 - although Okinawa is still home to 75% of the 63,000 U.S. soldiers stationed in Japan.
Okinawa has a distinct culture and language from the rest of Japan. Okinawa is renowned for its traditional dances, pottery, colourful fabrics, strong awamori alcohol (30 to 60% !), some of it containing a habu snake coiled in the bottle (!), and of course, for its food (goya champuru, etc.). Nevertheless, the utterly different Okinawan language, still spoken by most of the local people (who can also speak Japanese), leaves mainland Japanese at a loss.
The main island is also called Okinawa, like the prefecture. Its capital, Naha (pop. 300,000) is the main hub for tourists on their way to smaller islands or visting the attractions around.
The capital of the Ryukyu kings was based in Shuri from the 15th century to 1879. Shuri is now comprised in the city of Naha. All of Shuri was destroyed in the WWII bombings, including the temples, shrines tombs, castle and other historical buildings, although most of Shuri castle has been reconstructed. Shuri-jo Castle, rebuilt in 1993, has become one of Japan's best known sight since its Shureimon was chosen to appear on the new 2000 ¥ banknotes (released in 2000).
Okinawa also boasts one of the best aquariums in Japan. The Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, at Motobu (north of the island), is the largest in Asia and the main attraction are its manta rays and three whale sharks.
US Troops are stationed in Okinawa City (pop. 125,000) in the middle of Okinawa Island. The town itself has all it needs to feel more like America than Japan (or more like a fusion of both).
Okinawa has thousands of white sandy beach islands with crystal blue waters, colourful coral and fishes. Some islands have jungle and mangrove forest as well. The most popular among the large islands include Ishigaki-jima Island, Iriomote-jima Island and Miyako-jima Island.