Geared for Groups in Okinawa, Japan

Okinawa DMC often arranges traditional Okinawan cultural performances, such as the famous Lion Dance, for meeting, incentive, and convention groups. // © Okinawa DMC
One thing that surprised me most about a recent first-time visit to Okinawa, Japan this February, was just how different it was from mainland Japan. Okinawa Prefecture’s collection of subtropical islands, located about a two-and-a-half-hour flight southwest of Tokyo, are truly unique.

Because Okinawa was, for thousands of years, its own kingdom (known as Ryuku), the islands have their own distinct culture, language, and cuisine — all of which provide wonderful opportunities for U.S,-based meeting and incentive groups who come all the way to Okinawa.  Often, what you’ll see, eat, and experience here are things you can’t find anywhere else. 

Enlisting the help of a local destination management company (DMC) can help meeting and incentive planners find creative ways to embrace Okinawa’s one-of-a-kind culture and variety of activities, from diving and karate to scavenger hunts among the grounds of UNESCO World Heritage-listed castles. 

To get a better idea of the kinds of activities groups can do on Okinawa Island, we spoke to Hiroyuki Tokuda, the president of Okinawa DMC. The DMC, which was established in 2006, has worked with a number of international organizations to help create innovative teambuilding activities, themed parties, and CSR programs, many of them for pharmaceutical, life insurance, automobile, and telecommunications companies. Past clients, Tokuda notes, include Johnson & Johnson; British American Tobacco; Coca-Cola; Merck; BNP Paribas; Diesel: Tupperware; and Jaeger-LeCoultre.

SM: What makes Okinawa unique as a meeting and incentive destination?
Tokuda: “This is Japan, but it’s distinct from it. We’re different from the mainland. Okinawa shares Japanese culture but also other influences from other countries like China. The culture that you have is unique compared to what you have in Nihon. We have great beach resorts. The island is a sub tropical destination. We have a different nature and ecosystem. It’s still part of Japan, but it’s different. It’s a new destination within Japan for Americans to explore. If Americans have a particular image of Japan, they will be surprised by what they see here. It’s a new choice of destination for many American meeting and incentive groups.”

SM: What are some popular activities for groups to do in Okinawa?

Tokuda: We like to take advantage of the beautiful beaches here and we’ll do activities like Beach Olympics, or we’ll throw a traditional Okinawan party with traditional Ryuku dance performances and cuisines. 

Scavenger hunts that are similar to the Amazing Race are very popular for groups. Near the famous Shurijo Castle Park, we’ll give participants an iPad that has information about specific tasks they need to complete, and it also tells them about the history of that very famous area. After they finish all the tasks, they can go to nearby shops and collect small gifts from those shops, for example. An activity like that really helps visitors better understand the history behind Shurijo Castle, as well as have some fun, too. We’ve even done island hopping from a variety of different islands in an Amazing Race format.

For Merck, we taught the group how to make Okinawan music using the traditional Okinawa sanshin (a musical instrument that is similar to an ukulele or banjo). We use different instruments like the sanshin and drums, and participants learn how to use them. Within two hours, we have them playing two songs all together.

Another activity that groups can do is learn how to perform traditional Okinawan eisa dancing with drums.

We also have culinary activities like Okinawan champuru (stir-fry) making. We’ll choose a theme like the Okinawan seas, and we go to the market and buy some vegetables and seafood, and the group makes dishes with a professional chef. We advise them and support them and help them cook meals. It’s like a Top Chef competition.

The Okinawa Churaumi Aquairum is also a great venue where we’ve helped organize a variety of event and activities. So are the many beautiful royal gardens on Okinawa.

On the beaches, you can also do boat races in traditional boats. For British American Tobacco, we built a whole stage near the beach and put together a huge beach party for some 1,300 attendees.

When it comes to corporate social responsibility programs, some popular options include planting mangroves or even helping to replant coral.

Everything we do for groups, however, is all customized.

SM: What do you say to planners who may be concerned about the costs of having a meeting or incentive in Okinawa?

Tokuda: Like in mainland Japan, it can be a little bit expensive, but the services that we can provide and the manpower that we have, as well as the food costs, are less expensive than in Tokyo. The food is very reasonable and Americans love the local food. 

SM: What do you tell planners who inquire about the technological capabilities available in Okinawa?

Tokuda: For meeting equipment (A/V), there are no problems with that. We can provide it. The Wi-Fi infrastructure here is also expanding. Now, the local government is trying to develop an infrastructure for it. In downtown Naha, in the main areas and attractions and at some hotels, there is free public Wi-Fi. In the near future, you can enjoy Wi-Fi technology more easily here.