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Japan's sparkling jewel in the south

Okinawa offers visitors not only its unique and interesting local culture but also world heritage sites.

Okinawa's Churaumi Aquarium, located at the centre of the Motobu Peninsula, has an enormous capacity and showcases the largest fish in the world, the whale shark.

Beautiful sub-tropical Hydrangeas can be seen at the Yohena Ajisai Garden. The flowers are in bloom from mid-May until the end of June.

Cape Manzamo, which faces the open East China Sea, is one of the most popular scenic spots visited by both Japanese and international travellers.

AS part of the southernmost island chain in Japan, Okinawa is practically the closest point in Japan to Singapore and the Asean region.

Both budget carriers and full-fare airlines now offer several flights a week direct from Singapore to Okinawa, making access cheap and convenient.

Some of the best times to visit are during May when the Naha Hari or Okinawa Dragon Boat Races are held. This event is held to pray for bountiful catches and safety at sea and features the largest number of boats and boat designs in Okinawa.

JTB offers various packages to Japan's southern isles and visitors can take in sights such as Okinawa's impressive Churaumi Aquarium. With its enormous capacity, a gigantic tank called The Kuroshio Sea showcases the largest fish in the world, the whale shark, and the world's first successfully bred-in-captivity manta ray.

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The aquarium is located at the centre of the Motobu Peninsula. In this area, besides the famous Kouri Bridge, there are also famous World Heritage Sites including the Nakijin Castle Ruins.

Beautiful sub-tropical blooms such as Hydrangeas can be seen at the Yohena Ajisai Garden. The flowers are in bloom from mid-May until the end of June.

Okinawa is also famed for its unique and interesting local culture, which is very different from that of the main Japanese islands. At Yomitan Village this rich culture can be experienced, along with some of the best sunset viewing spots and traditional local artisans.

The cultural theme park Okinawa World also lets you experience almost all the important aspects of Okinawa culture in one location. There are old Okinawan houses and also traditional folk dances.

You can take a walk through Gyokusendo, a mysterious five-kilometre-long underground cavern formed 300,000 years ago before moving on to experience Shisa painting. The Shisa is a traditional Ryukyu decoration, often seen in pairs at the entrance to homes, resembling a cross between a lion and a dog from Okinawan mythology.

Other sights include Shuri Castle park, which has been designated as a world heritage site and is a key landmark symbolising the prosperity at the height of the Ryukyu Dynasty. It is also the only castle that has been restored to its full former glory after the Battle of Okinawa.

These sights are all close to or within Naha City, the capital city of Okinawa Prefecture. Kokusai Dori, the busiest street in Okinawa, is also found at its centre.

An interesting way to experience the warmth and hospitality of Okinawan people is through Minpaku or homestay experience with a local family. The local family will guide you for a local and cultural experience and show you the best local places while also sharing their home-made dishes for dinner.

Meanwhile, to the south of Naha City, there are numerous ocean cafes with amazing views of the Pacific Ocean on the east coast. The popular World Heritage Site, Sefautaki and the Valley of Gangala are also here.

Another picturesque spot is Cape Manzamo, one of the most popular scenic sites visited by both Japanese and international travellers. Located on the Western side of Okinawa Island, it faces the open East China Sea to the West, making it a very popular spot for viewing sunsets.

Finally, the Kerama Islands, some 30km to 40km north of Naha, boast some spectacular underwater scenery and beautiful waters. The islands include some 20 small and large islands, all of which are surrounded by coral reefs and unbelievably transparent seas.

Only five of the islands, Tokashiki, Maejima, Zamami, Aka and Geruma, are inhabited. Humpback whales migrate through the waters around the islands every winter and local whale watching trips are available.

The Kerama Islands were designated Japan's 31st national park in 2014, and the islands' beautiful coral reefs and clear waters serve as the habitat for approximately 250 species of coral and a breeding ground for humpback whales.

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