Okinawa For First Time Visitors

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Okinawa For First Time Visitors
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You may have heard of Okinawa Island in Japan, but not many people have visited this beautiful paradise island that is also known as the Hawaii of Japan. Okinawa is located about 640 kilometers south of Japan, and is connected by flights.

With a population of 1.5 million people on Okinawa, the island is a very popular tourism destination for Japanese, and also Asians, mainly due to the northern tropical environment and landscape. Summer sees the island getting really busy with those who love the sun, sea and sand.

Okinawa is also home to some of the most beautiful national parks, scuba diving sites and amazing mountain trails or hikes. If you are expecting another Tokyo or Osaka, I am sorry to say, this is not your typical Japanese city, but more of a Japanese Hawaii.


An aerial view of Okinawa, Japan. Photo by Junpei Abe on Flickr. CC By-SA 2.0.

First of all, how to get to Okinawa?

The golden question is how to get here as from Malaysia, there are no direct flights to Okinawa. But not all is lost as you can connect here with just two flights from Kuala Lumpur. There are around four main airlines that service the Okinawa route from Kuala Lumpur.

From Kuala Lumpur, an average flight takes about 10 to 11 hours flight to Okinawa. This of course includes the transit time as you will have to make a stop before connecting to Okinawa. However, the faster flights tend to sell out fast, so you need to book well ahead for these kind of flights.

Otherwise, other flights may take from 15 to 24 hours, where you need to spend a night when you transit. Flights are not too expensive too, as the cheapest I found online is around RM2,000 to RM2,500 for a return ticket, both ways.

The fastest way is also via Taiwan, where you can take a Malaysian flight to Taiwan, and then connect to Okinawa with Peach Airlines. Other ways include transits at Bangkok, Shanghai or Hong Kong. But lease note that your travel day will take up to one full day of flights and transits.

This means, if you plan for a 4D/3N trip, you might as well not do it because two days will be spent on just traveling. I would recommend spending at least six to seven days for a trip to Okinawa. This way, you can really have a good time exploring this beautiful Japanese island.

One of the beautiful beaches in Okinawa. Photo by Masaaki Komori on Flickr. CC By-SA 2.0.


How big is Okinawa?

There are five main areas or districts in Okinawa, meaning different islands that make up Okinawa. In total, 160 islands are found around here with 49 of them that are inhabited with people. The main island is also divided into three sections, north, central and south.

Each of the three sections offer different types of tourist experiences, where the north and central tend to offer more outdoor, beach, island and Ecotourism activities. The south island is where the international airport and city is located at, and is the core of Okinawa.

Some of the smaller islands are connected via bridges and there are a total of nine island which have road access from the main island. They are Kouri, Senaga, Ou, Henza, Hamahiga, Ikei, Miyagi, Sesoko and Yagagi Island.

Sesoko Island in Okinawa. Photo by Girakku on Flickr. CC By-SA 2.0.

The other island regions include Kerama Island, which is the closest to Okinawa main island, Kume Island, Miyako Islands and Yaeyama Islands. Kerama and Kume Islands are only accessible via ferries, which take from two to four hours, while Miyako and Yaeyama Islands are only accessible via flights from the main island.

Depending on your itinerary or where you plan to visit, it is highly recommended that you check your flight or ferry schedules beforehand. This simply means that you should plan your Okinawa trip months ahead, in order to get better prices and availability for flights, ferries and rooms.

Most first time visitors will arrive in the main island and stay in the Naha area of Okinawa. From there, they will explore the tourist destinations via road, and maybe some boat or ferry service.

Some visitors will venture to the other islands for various sea activities like diving, whale watching, snorkeling or even just for an island vacation.


A popular area is Kokusaidori Street in Naha. Photo by Rapidtravelchai on Flickr. CC By-SA 2.0.

What to do in Okinawa?

Another popular question asked by many travelers is what you can do on this beautiful island. Well, let me narrow down this list to make it easy for first time visitors here. You will most likely want to see the best and most popular places on the island.

While Okinawa is well known for beaches, scuba diving, Eco tourism, culture and of course, the unique Japanese island food, you will have a tough time deciding on where to go or what to do first.

Naha City – This is the capital of Okinawa, and it is here that most visitors will be staying at. The combination of beach, island and city life makes this place optimum for any first time visitors. All of your accommodations and facilities are found in and around Naha.

Kokusai Street – To start your Okinawa experience, Kokusai Street in Naha is the main street, where you can find shopping, cafes, restaurants and most of your regular city stores. In this area, you can also find some shopping malls and the DFS Gallery Okinawa, the largest duty free shop on the island.

Shuri – At the Shuri area, you will find the historical side of Okinawa where the Ryukyu Kingdom ruled. A number of historical sites are seen around here which include the Shurijo Castle Park, which is a World Heritage Site.

Kokusaidori Street – This is one of the main shopping streets in Naha that stretches two kilometers and is recommended to explore. This street is also known as Naha Kokusai-dori, and can be visited both day and night. Generally, you can find everything a typical Asian tourist looks for when they travel abroad.

Mihama American Village in Okinawa. Photo by Okinawa Steve on Flickr. CC By-SA 2.0.

 American Village – This is probably the most modern lifestyle area of Okinawa called Mihama American Village. You can find all things American here, including cares, restaurants and even an American shopping mall. The famous Sunset Beach is also found around here.

Sakaemachi Arcade – If you want to explore a very local area, Sakaemachi Arcade is the place to visit. Here, you can see the daily life of the Okinawa people in a localized arcade which sells all sorts of things. You can also find some awesome local Japanese food, coffee joints and even small local bars in this area. Again, a reminder that Sakaemachi Arcade is very raw and not your local Shinsaibashi or Shibuya.

Beaches – For the beach hunter, there are endless beaches found all over Okinawa, and some of the popular ones include Okuma beach, Moon beach, Manza beach, Mibaru beach, Zampa beach, Sunset beach and Emerald beach.

A view of a lighthouse at Ishigakijima Island. Photo by TrekTrack on Flickr. CC By-SA 2.0.

Snorkeling – For those into snorkeling, Cape Maeda and Odo Kaigan are the two most famous spots to do this. However, it may take some traveling to get to both these places, but the rewards are simply out of this world.

Parks and Mountains – Eco lovers will find that there are three national parks around Okinawa, which are Yanbaru National Park, Kerama Shotō National Park and Iriomote Ishigaki National Park on Yaeyama Island. And if you are into hiking and trekking, there are six mountains to explore around here.

Food and Culture – In general, you can find this all over the main island, as the Okinawa food culture is well spread. The one must-try dish is of course the Okinawa Soba and Okinawa Sea Grapes or Imu Budo. For the food traveler, there are many other popular dishes for you to discover around here.

Festivals – There are five main festivals that tend to attract many visitors, which are;

  • Hari Festival – Early June
  • Yaeyama Beach Opening Festival – Mid March
    Eisa Dance Festival – August or September
  • Pantu Festival of Miyakojima – September, but announced last minute
  • Shuri Castle Festival – End of October

There are of course smaller festivals, but the most recommended festival to attend is the Pantu Festival, as it is quite unique and scary as the same time.


The Okinawa Yui Monorail. Photo by Tak Wing on Flickr. CC By-SA 2.0.

How to move around Naha and Okinawa

This is highly crucial for those who travel on their own, and require moving around Naha and Okinawa in general. In any city, there are always trains, taxis and buses which provide transportation solutions. But here in Okinawa, you should take note of that is being offered.

Trains – Sadly, there is only one main train system in Naha, which is the Yui Rail Monorail system that operates from the Naha Airport to Shuri, the historical part of South Okinawa. This means, when you arrive at the international airport, you can simply take the monorail into Naha city.

This monorail system opened in 2003, and runs for almost 13 kilometers long. There have been plans to expand this monorail system, but to date, there is no information on this. On the bright side, you can easily travel around Naha using the Yui Rail.

The monorail map in Okinawa. Photo by Naha Airport.

The train system operates from 6.00 AM till midnight and train tickets are from ¥200 to ¥290, depending on the distance. There are also multi-ride or open tickets available for tourist.

Buses – Other ways of traveling around Naha or Okinawa include the excellent bus service. There are various bus companies that operate different routes all over the island. The main bus terminals are found at the Naha Airport and the main Naha Bus Terminal in the city.

Cars and Bikes – For the more adventurous travelers, you can always rent a motor bike or car and self ride or drive around Okinawa. Those who plan to do this, you must take high importance to the Japanese driving culture and laws here, and most important, have an international driving license. Malaysians need to get this before you attempt to rent a car, and your Malaysian driving licence is not enough.

Taxis – Around the main city area, a Japanese taxi can be one of the quick ways to get somewhere. But here is the fun part – The taxis in Okinawa are not as expensive as in Tokyo or Osaka, so this is something you can consider, if you are in a rush.

Bicycles – Finally, for those who want an easy way to explore Naha city, there are a number of bicycle rentals where you can pedal power your way around Naha.


The Renaissance Okinawa Resort. Photo by PearlBear78 on Flickr. CC By-SA 2.0.

Where to stay in Okinawa?

For first timers, you will probably stay around the Naha area, which is the capital of Okinawa and the main city. The international airport is also located in this part of Okinawa, which is the south west of the island.

In Okinawa, there are hundreds of hotels, resorts, Ryokan’s and even budget accommodation available, depending on the type of place you want to stay at. Best to always book ahead to get good prices, as last minute bookings are always on the higher side.


The world famous Okinawa Aquarium. Photo by Mollenborg on Flickr. CC By-SA 2.0.

Best time to visit Okinawa

The best time for anyone to visit Okinawa is during the summer period, but overall, the island can be visited throughout the year. During the summer, many Japanese tend to flock here as an alternative to Hawaii.

Summer time in Okinawa also attracts many visitors from the Asian region, namely travelers from the Philippines, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea and of course China. This means, for those who dislike crowds, you should avoid coming here in the peak of Summer.

Further Information on Okinawa

There are a lot of websites and portals that may offer information on Okinawa, some accurate, some done just for website clicks. I would strongly recommend that you visit the official Okinawa Tourism website here – https://www.visitokinawa.jp/ as they are the national tourism board.


 

David Hogan Jr
David Hogan Jr
A multiple award-winning travel writer, blogger and social media enthusiast. He has been traveling to Japan since 1990 and all over the world for his work. His work has been featured on CNN Travel, Yahoo Travel, Lonely Planet and many other publications. David writes at: http://malaysia-asia.my and is on social media platforms as @MalaysiaAsia

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