The Yanbaru Region in Northern Okinawa | UNESCO

Cape Hedo Misaki in Northern Okinawa

In 2021, the Yanbaru Region in Northern Okinawa became a new UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site, along with some other remote regions in Okinawa. And rightly so – we think. Since we write travel guide books about Japan, and also about Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost province, we travel there regularly. We have also travelled to the island of Iriomote, another part of the new UNESCO inscription. The 2021 sites are already the second UNESCO site on Okinawa. In 2000 the UNESCO included the Gusuku sites, also on Okinawa Main Island, in its World Heritage list.

Historically, the whole archipelago of Okinawa went by the name of Ryukyu and was an independent kingdom. But since the 19th century, it is a very exotic part of Japan. Okinawa is both the name of the province and of the largest island. Indeed, Okinawa Island is quite developed, with the province’s capital Naha and nearly 30,000 American soldiers stationed. However, all those cities and military bases are in Southern Okinawa Island. So are most of the beaches and tourist hotels. But the Yanbaru area the UNESCO committee nominated is in the far north of Okinawa Main Island.

Ogimi Village – the village of longevity

Natascha with healthy old people in Northern Okinawa

From Nago City and the Motobu Peninsula, in the middle of the island, we take to the back roads. Occasionally we may go via the rural Yagaji Island, and then to Ogimi Village. Ogimi Village is not only the entrance gate to Kunigami district and the UNESCO Yanbaru Region in Northern Okinawa. It is also world-famous for its longevity, and the number of healthy centenarians. Purportedly, this is due to the particularly healthy local diet.

“Oh, of course the food is healthy”, comments an energetic local woman at the rest area and farmer’s market on the coastal street. In her late fifties, she’s a youngster by local standards. “But it’s mostly because there is nothing to do here. The younger people move away and all the old ones have to manage on their own, so they stay fit!” We pass a man so old and frail that we fear he might be falling off his bicycle, but yes, he manages.

Of course we also try the local food at Emi no Mise, a slow food restaurant run by Emi, one of these famous healthy old women of Northern Okinawa. Is it healthy? Probably. Is it delicious? Decidedly yes.

Visiting the Yanbaru Region

View from the Kayauchi Banta cliff in Northern Okinawa

The UNESCO-listed Yanbaru National Park begins only north of Ogimi Village, and it consists of trackless virgin forest. The lonely coastal road with one last tourist resort is not part of the UNESCO zone. Nor is the impressive cliff Kayauchi-banta or Cape Hedo Misaki, the only two touristy or noteworthy places in Northern Okinawa Island.

Like the other sites nominated at the same time, the protected part of the Yanbaru Region is defined as “entirely uninhabited by humans”.  Its universal value is its high biodiversity, the number of endemic species: plants, mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians. Not a few of them are endangered animals, such as the Yanbaru Kuina (“Okinawa Rail”). This flightless bird looks very cute – but of course (and luckily) the only places where we have seen the Yanbaru Kuina is on traffic signs.

Yanbaru Kuina bird on a road sign in Okinawa

As with most UNESCO World Natural Heritage sites, the aim of the international protection is keeping people (and tourists) out of the endangered, protected zones. So, the closest we could come to visit the Yanbaru region is in the small village Oku. Oku means back, bottom, or depths, and indeed it is at the farthest end of Okinawa Island, far away from all civilisation. This is where Oku Yanbaru no Sato is, a small information centre on Northern Okinawa – more about folk culture, though.

Staying at the campsite close to the Yanbaru Region

“Oh, but all the campsites close at 4 pm!” The man at the Yui Michi no Eki Tourist information seems irritated that we want to stay in the Yanbaru region at all and suggests a campsite further south. But we have seen a sign for a campsite at the local Kunigami Forest Park. The winding road leads up into the mountains. When we rush into the park office at 5 pm, friendly elderly ladies show us the facilities and a lawn that we have all for ourselves. And right there, where the grass ends, the forest marks the beginning of the UNESCO buffer zone. The Yanbaru Region UNESCO World Heritage Site is right in front of us! But again – not much to see.

camping next to the Yanbaru Region in Northern Okinawa

How to get to the Yanbaru region in Northern Okinawa

There is a bus running from Nago to Oku once or twice a day. However, it goes only along the main road (the campsite is 3 km from the next bus stop, and 200 meters higher). We would recommend renting a car in Naha or Nago.

Should you visit the Yanbaru region in Northern Okinawa?

If you travel to the Yanbaru region in Northern Okinawa explicitly to see the UNESCO site, you will very likely be disappointed. It is neither possible to hike into the area nor to see anything. However the Yanbaru region and Northern Okinawa are definitely worth a visit. Get some healthy tasty food at Emi no Mise, make your way to the far-flung Kayauchi-banta cliff and the Cape Hedo Misaki and spend a night in Oku, at the very end of Okinawa Main Island.

Yanbaru Kuina birds on a local herb tea packaging in Okinawa

Have you visited Natural UNESCO sites? How was it? Did you see a lot of wildlife? Or did you see anything at all? Do you think it is a good idea to keep tourists out of these sites? Let us know in the comments!

Cape Hedo Misaki in Northern Okinawa

Did we make you curious about UNESCO World Natural Heritage sites in Japan? Then read also our travel blog articles about the Shiretoko Peninsula in Japan’s far north, and about Shirakami Sanchi on the main island of Honshu. It is one of several protected beech forests we have seen, including the Serrahn forest in Germany.

NB: Our trip to Northern Okinawa was not sponsored. We organised it ourselves and paid all expenses. This post does NOT contain Affiliate Links.

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16 Comments

  1. It sounds like Yanbaru National Park is a good weekend camping trip if your expectations are on track. I like that it was not crowded at the campsite but it is a bummer that there isn’t a small section open for on trail hiking.

  2. I think there are reasons why you can’t really explore the area. Or, not much to see when you get there. I think they want to keep the area as it is. They are afraid tourists will change it if the open some part of the area for tourism. But, I would like to visit Egimi Village and eat at Emi no Mise.

    1. Dear Umiko, of course this is the reason. And it might be better not allow tourists to go inside the protected area. But the Yanbaru region is worth a visit anyway.

  3. I think I wouldn’t mind staying at the small village of Oku. I guess by keeping the UNESCO site off-limits preserves it and the goal of giving that status is achieved. But even exploring the neighbourhood is a good way to experience the Yanbaru region. In fact, not seeing something in depth makes it more fascinating and intriguing.

    1. Dear Ambica, the Yanbaru area has fascinating nature even outside the UNESCO area and is a lovely place to visit. I think they do the right thing in protecting the nature by not letting people in.

  4. What an incredible trip!! Japan is my dream destination and for reasons and places like this. I like that visitors can’t enter protected zones, it preserves the nature and more for the local people too. The food looks delicious, I’d love to visit.

  5. Thanks for your honest review of this UNESCO site. It’s unfortunate that you had to experience the restrictions and likely the disappointment that you weren’t able to get close enough. And, glad to hear that the Yanbaru region and Northern Okinawa are definitely worth a visit.

    1. Dear Renee, we have visited quite a few of the Natural UNESCO sites – and were aware that access might be restricted. We had to go to the region anyway as it was part of our research for a guidebook on Okinawa. And, as you said, the nature is beautiful too outside the protected area.

  6. Japan is prob right at the tip of my bucket list so going to visit Okinawa would be a must. Amd if there is camping involved as well then I could see this destination being a definitely stop

  7. Thank you for your honesty. I’d be pretty disappointed to travel to see a UNSECO site and not be able to really do anything there. Still if you hadn’t had done it you wouldn’t have known and I’m sure it was still an enjoyable day.

    1. Dear Kerry, as written in the post we did not go there specifically for the UNESCO site. We did some research for a guidebook and had to check out if and what there is to see.

  8. My father spent some time in Okinawa when he was in the military, and yet I had never seen any photos until I read your post. I can see that it is a beautiful and even exotic place to visit!

  9. I would be surprised that there is nothing much to do in a UNESCO site, still it looks like the nature outside the UNESCO area is very beautiful, and as long as you keep your expectations low, it should be a nice trip.

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