Okinawa, Japan: A One-of-a-Kind Meeting Destination

Where To: Okinawa
Meet: Okinawa Convention Center
The convention center can also act as a facilitator for a variety of other meeting events. “In warmer months, part of Tropical Beach, just behind the center, can be used as a private event area, and we host a lot of beach parties there,” says MICE Coordinator Hisae Nakandakari. “The nearby marina offers opportunities for small group-chartered cruises, and there are a number of hotels adjacent to the center.”

Groups can try creating their own traditional Okinawan arts and crafts at this intimate store/studio located just a short walk from the main entrance of Shurijo Castle Park. Here, you can learn how to create your own bingata, handpainted Okinwan fabrics, or learn to make your own coral-dyed textiles, like I did. The main studio can accommodate groups of about 30. 

At this hotel, Sushi Shurei Chef Nobumasa Irei personally teaches groups from two to 80 how to make their own hand-rolled sushi, followed by a full meal. Since the program’s inception in 2011, 6,000 people have learned how to make their own sushi.

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Okinawa offers a variety of luxurious resorts like The Ritz-Carlton, Okinawa, shown here. // © The Ritz-Carlton, Okinawa
 
 
An intriguing blend of distinctly Ryukyu, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, and even American influences, Okinawa, Japan, is a beautiful island destination that boasts an even more robust culture and heritage than I ever could have imagined. For thousands of years, Okinawa was its own country, a collection of multiple islands southwest of mainland Japan, known as the Ryukyu kingdom. It wasn’t until 1879 that Okinawa became a part of Japan and, following World War II, the U.S. oversaw administration of Okinawa until 1972. Today, the U.S. still maintains a military presence on Okinawa Island.

“That one-of-a-kind culture is still there, and you won’t see that anywhere else,” says Dana Galbreath, conference manager for the Japan National Tourism Organization and Japan Convention Bureau. She adds: “The fact that the U.S. has had such a long presence there also means that Americans can be very comfortable there. Okinawa has had more than 50 years of experience in knowing what Americans expect.”

Having traveled to Japan before, I thought I’d be prepared for what I’d experience there. Okinawa, however, was different. This is a very special place, and it’s also a fantastic place to host a meeting. 

With the strengthening dollar, Okinawa is not nearly as costly as you might think. Not only that, but Okinawan hospitality is superb and the variety of group activities is outstanding. Learning about karate (this is the birthplace of the martial art) or learning how to create traditional Ryukyu arts and crafts are just a few examples. 

“U.S.-based organizations will benefit from meeting in Okinawa where they’re able to be refreshed in a relaxing atmosphere, and learn about Okinawa’s unique history and culture,” says Rena Nakasone, MICE coordinator for the Okinawa Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The Lay of the Island
The main island of Okinawa is where the majority of groups meet. The capital city, Naha, is a two-and-a-half hour’s flight from Tokyo and is situated in the southern part of the island. It blends modern facilities with traditional sites, among them the modern Okinawa Prefectural Museum & Art Museum and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Shurijo Castle, both of which can host groups and events. 

A walk down the main thoroughfare, Kokusai Dori (International Street), will lead you to a multitude of shops and restaurants, as well as Naha’s famous Makishi public market, and, further south, the Tsuboya Pottery Museum. Naha has a variety of business hotels, including the Hotel Rocore Naha, and the Hotel JAL City Naha, although many do not have very expansive meeting room facilities. 

Okinawa is very easy to navigate by car or bus, and even easier in the heart of downtown Naha thanks to the Okinawa Monorail, also known as Yui Rail. Beyond Naha, the hotels and resorts are fairly self-contained, many offering spectacular views of the ocean. 

Just north of Naha, in Ginowan City, is the island’s largest meeting venue, the Okinawa Convention Center. “The center here is complemented by a resort beach, marina, glass-bottomed boat, seaside park, and outdoor theater,” explains Nakasone. “What really sets this center apart is that it’s a relaxing MICE resort area with opportunities for beach events, and more,” adds Hisae Nakandakari, MICE coordinator for the Okinawa Convention Center. Nakandakari notes that the center is also well accustomed to working with U.S.-based organizations.

Further north, about an hour-and-a-half drive from Naha near Nago Bay, are luxe beach resorts, as well as a world-class conference center, Bankoku Shinryokan Okinawa, which hosted the 26th annual G8 Summit in 2000. It is, in my opinion, one of the most serene conference venues I’ve ever been to; you can practically hear the ocean waves as you walk from building to building. Having hosted the G8 Summit, it is also well equipped to handle meetings with high levels of security. 

The 410-room beachfront Busena Terrace Beach Resort, near Bankoku Shinryokan, hosted many of the G8 Summit’s world leaders. Guest rooms are spacious and there’s an on-site MICE support team to assist groups. One of the largest MICE groups that the property has hosted was a buyout of 700 from Toyota. Not far from the resort, at Busena Marine Park, you can explore the underwater observatory or ride out on the ocean in a glass-bottom boat.

Not far from Busena is the Kise Country Club, as well as The Ritz-Carlton, Okinawa, and the Okinawa Marriott Resort & Spa. The views surrounding the Ritz-Carlton are of the Kise golf course and the intimate 97-room property is a peaceful retreat for smaller groups, with three restaurants and bars, as well as a stunning ESPA, fashioned to resemble the surrounding forests. The 344-room Okinawa Marriott Resort & Spa, where I stayed, is also accustomed to hosting meeting groups, with several dining venues and flexible meeting spaces, and comfortable guest rooms equipped with Wi-Fi.

Sea Change
Okinawa’s close ties to the seas are well represented at the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, part of the larger Ocean Expo Park in Nago. This massive venue is available for group events, and is home to a family of majestic whale sharks, dolphins, and manatees. 

Okinawa is well known as a prime diving and snorkeling spot, and groups are encouraged to participate in CSR activities such as coral re-planting. Its temperate climes are also a major draw, says Nakasone. “Okinawa is Japan’s only region with a subtropical climate, maintaining temperatures in excess of 68 degrees or more all yearround,” she explains.  

In the years ahead, Okinawa will continue to welcome more hotels and meeting facilities. “We are expecting a brand-new Hilton hotel at Chatan City,” says Nakasone, “and the Hotel Orion Motobu Resort & Spa near Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium is slated to open in July.” There is also buzz that Okinawa will be the home of a brand-new 20,000-capacity convention center.

I, for one, can’t wait to see what develops next, and to experience Okinawan hospitality once more. One of my fondest memories happened just as I was about to leave at the airport. There, my guide, Shoji-san, handed me a gift, a tiny little bottle filled with Okinawa’s famous star-shaped sand — a wonderful reminder of this enchanted isle.  


For more ideas for group activities in Okinawa, read our Q&A with the president of Okinawa DMC