Okinawa: Which island is for you?

Okinawa: Which island is for you?

It's Japan but not as you know it. Get familiar with the country's most laid-back islands with this handy primer

Okinawa has a population of around 1.3 million spread mostly across five main islands. The two dozen or so islands of Okinawa arc through crystal-blue tropical waters from southern Kyushu to Taiwan.

Properly known as the Ryukyu Islands, after the name of the independent kingdom that once flourished here, they're home to a culture that's distinct from that of the mainland -- although “standard” Japanese is spoken here, so too are a variety of dialects impenetrable even to native Japanese.

Weather-wise, the peak season runs July through the end of September, though the tail end of that period coincides with the height of the dreaded, holiday-wrecking typhoon season.

October and November, and February through April, are popular times to visit, though cooler than in peak months. We’re still talking 20 degrees C (68 F), so you can leave the earmuffs at home.

Times to avoid include the rainy season, which runs May through June, and the holiday of Golden Week, the first week of May, when crowds of Japanese tourists throng the islands and make getting reservations a nightmare.

Getting there is becoming easier with ANA and JAL running multiple flights a day from most of Japan’s major cities -- the three-hour flight from Tokyo makes it a popular getaway from the big city. It's even closer to Hong Kong and Taiwan; Hong Kong-based Dragonair operates four flights a week.

Each of Okinawa’s main islands features its own unique charms. Here’s a quick run-down to help you figure out where to plant your beach umbrella.

Okinawa Island

Cape Manzamo, OkinawaCape Manzamo

The Good: The Okinawa experience. Most flights, particularly the cheaper ones, land at Naha Airport on Okinawa Island, making it the most convenient of the island's destinations.

Naha is the capital of the Okinawa prefecture and its largest city (population 315,000). Numerous large-scale beach resorts and sightseeing spots make this a popular destination for families. It’s also the jumping-off point for snorkeling or diving the popular Kerama islands.

Must-see: The sprawling Ocean Expo Park, which in addition to housing the spectacular Churaumi Aquarium includes an Oceanic Culture Museum and a reconstruction of a native Okinawan village.

Must-eat: Naha Harbor Diner. Touristy, but hard to resist for a quick lunch. Built to look as though it’s sitting atop a giant gajumaru banyan tree, it serves decent seafood dishes and nice views of the harbor.

The bad: Crowds can mean inconvenience. It’s the most urbanized of the islands, so those looking to get away from cramped society will want to strike out for more remote parts.

The ugly: Huge swaths of Okinawa Island are occupied by the U.S. military, giving certain locales a distinctively shabby “off-base” feel.

Ishigaki Island

Kabira, Ishigaki IslandKabira Bay. Lovely to look at, but swimming is banned. The good: Scuba and snorkel central. A solid compromise for those who want peace and quiet without going to the true boonies. Ishigaki caters to families via numerous resorts and beaches, and to scuba divers with sites such as the legendary “Manta Scramble,” where giant manta rays gather.

We highly recommend staying in or around Kabira Bay, which features beautiful beaches and tropical vistas. Once twilight falls, watch for the colonies of giant flying foxes the size of lap dogs. Don’t worry: they only suck fruit, not blood.

Must-see: If you forget your flippers, the glass-bottomed boat tours are a good substitute. They cost 1,000 yen ($11) for 30 minutes and are run by several companies in Kabira Bay. Head to the beach; you can’t miss them.

The bad: Kabira may be the island’s most beautiful bay, but it’s off-limits to swimmers due to strong currents and boat traffic.

Plenty more beaches are within walking distance; Sukuji Beach is good for sunbathers and Yonehara for snorkelers.

The ugly: Divers in particular may want to avoid January and February, when seas are at their roughest. Independent sorts may chafe at the regimented, group-oriented approach of some Japanese dive operators. We’ve had more luck with bilingual and foreign-run operations than those that cater specifically to Japanese.

Taketomi Island

TaketomiLimited facilities make Taketomi a true getaway. The good: A 15-minute boat ride from Ishigaki Island (above), Taketomi is easy to get to yet exotic. The tiny size (it can be circumnavigated by foot in a matter of hours), preserved village of traditional homes and almost total lack of motor vehicles makes Taketomi both picturesque and a favorite for families.

It’s a great way to get a sense of traditional Okinawan architecture and the beaches are heaven for swimmers and snorkelers. The three ways to get around are by foot, bicycle or water buffalo-drawn carts driven by elderly residents who strum out local songs on their shamisen.

Must-ride: A buffalo-drawn cart tour is a great way to get your bearings and take in the local architecture. Trips run 1,200 yen (US$13.50) a person for a half-hour tour; two competing companies operate out of the center of Taketomi village.

Must-swim: Hoshizuma-no-hama (“Star Sand”) beach is our favorite snorkeling spot in the area. You’ll see anemones and clownfish, rock lobsters, lionfish and more. Neighboring Kondoi beach, which has changing rooms, is better for families and sunbathers.

The bad: If you’re the sort who prefers posh resorts, you may be put off by the charming but admittedly rustic minshuku inns here. Very limited facilities means not a whole lot to do once the sun goes down -- but then again, that’s kind of the point of an island getaway, isn’t it?

The ugly: You know you’re in a tropical paradise when the only ugly thing around is the rump of the water buffalo pulling your cart.

Iriomote Island

IriomoteIriomote is best suited for the outdoor adventurer. The good: If you’re a canoer or trekker, this is the place to be. Sometimes called “Japan’s Galapagos” for its thick jungles and exotic wildlife, Iriomote Island feels like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. It’s accessible only via 40-minute jetfoil ride from Ishigaki Island.

Far less accessible, and far less traveled than the other Okinawan islands, Iriomote’s jungles, mangroves and beaches are popular with outdoorsy types. Kayak tours and boat cruises down the Urachi and Nakama rivers get you into exotic jungle in a matter of minutes.

Hoshizuna-no-hama (“Star Sand Beach”) is one of Okinawa’s more pristine beaches.

Accomodations run the gamut from rustic hostels to more luxurious eco-hotels.

Must-do: A visit to Yubu-jima island is a great way to take a break from the constant hiking, snorkeling and paddling you’ll be doing. It's accessible only via water buffalo-drawn carts at low tide.

You’ll need a rental car, or take the bus to the Yubujima-suigyu-noriba stop (about a 20-minute ride from Ohara port.)

Must-ride: The Nakamagawa River Cruise is the best way to get close to the island's impressive mangroves. Cost is 1,500 yen (US$17) for an hour and a half ride, with regular departures from the Iriomote Island Tourism Information Center at Nakama Port.

The bad: Can be a pain to get around if you don’t rent a car. First-timers and those without drivers’ licenses should consider visiting as part of a day tour from Ishigaki island.

Tours can be arranged through one of the purveyors at the Ishigaki Ferry Terminal, which you'll need to use to get to Iriomote anyway.

The ugly: Locals don’t mix with visitors much outside of the tourist trade, and in fact can get quite upset about foreigners (including mainland Japanese) poking around their shrines and villages uninvited.

This is actually true to varying degrees throughout Okinawa, so independent-minded travelers should take care when exploring.

Yonaguni Island

AwamoriYonaguni is famed for Awamori liquor, a distilled rice beverage.

The good: It’s way, way out there. About as far away as you can get and still be in Japan -- in fact, so far-flung that you can actually see Taiwan from its shores.

Mainly catering to serious scuba divers, Yonaguni is famous for precisely three things: high-proof awamori liquor, diving and the “Yonaguni-san,” gigantic Atlas moths said to be the model for Godzilla’s arch-enemy Mothra.

Must-do: Dive the “Monument,” a strange underwater formation some say represents the ruins of a lost city. Any local dive operation will take you there.

During winter months, you get the added thrill of diving amid huge numbers of hammerhead sharks. Don't worry, they don't attack humans.

Must-drink: If you’re a drinker, you can’t leave the island without sampling Donan, Okinawa’s most powerful Awamori liquor.

The bad: Like we said, it’s way, way out there. The only ways to get to Iriomote are via a 40-minute flight or overnight boat trip from Ishigaki Island. Facilities are spartan compared with those on other islands.

The ugly: Like all Okinawan islands, Yonaguni is home to a whole host of dangerous critters. Hikers need to keep an eye peeled for Habu, large pit vipers that pack a deadly bite. They’re around year-round, but are particularly active during warmer months.

Swimmers, snorkelers and divers also need to watch out for a whole host of poisonous beasties, including fire coral, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopi and more.

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Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt run AltJapan Co., Ltd., a Tokyo-based  company that specializes in translating video games and other pop culture. They are the co-authors of "Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide," "Ninja Attack! True Tales of Assassins, Samurai, and Outlaws," and "Yurei Attack! The Japanese Ghost Survival Guide."

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Matt Alt, for CNN Travel
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