Okinawa is often regarded as the “Japanese Hawaii”. It is a southern chain of Japanese islands and its tropical-subtropical climate makes it a great resort destination throughout most of the year (except for the rainy season (late April-early June) and typhoon season (July-August)). Okinawa also has its own culture and people welcome you as warmly as the weather. The word “Okinawa” itself means “the rope in the open sea” due to its long stretch of islands. Only 49 of the islands of Okinawa are inhabited and the remaining 111 are uninhabited.
Travelling in Okinawa
Transportation. This might be one of the challenges for those, who are planning to do backpacking in Okinawa. Unlike most parts of Japan, the transportation system in Okinawa is not very advanced, but it is quite costly. The majority of tourists commute using taxis, which can be found practically anywhere. But if you are a budget traveler you can use the car-rent service or public transport. If you prefer the second option, planning in advance is essential otherwise you might find yourself on the road too often and unable to fully enjoy all that Okinawa has to offer. For far distances, checking bus/ship tours is highly recommended as they are efficient both time-wise and money-wise. Information is available in English for most of the tours. There are several tours to popular destinations, offered by different companies. Many tours include a pick up and a drop off service from the most popular hotels as well.
If you want to go sightseeing only around Naha city (places like Kokusai-dori – International street or Shuri Castle Park are here), you can use the monorail. Passes for 1 day or 2 days are also available (700 yen and 1200 yen respectively). Also you can visit the Former Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters, located near Tomigusuku Castle Park. For further places, buses are available and most of them depart from Naha Bus Terminal, which is located conveniently close to the airport (a few stations on the monorail). Information about daily passes and bus discount tickets is available here in English: http://www.kotsu-okinawa.org/en/index_info1.html. At Naha Bus Terminal, you can also get full information about bus schedules and destinations. Please note, however, that generally buses in Okinawa are considered to be a little unreliable, so allow yourself some leeway time when planning your trip.
Islands in Okinawa
The most beautiful views in Okinawa can be observed from the islands surrounding the main island (Okinawa Hontou). There are many islands to choose from, based on your interests and the time you want to spend there. Most are accessible by ship, but some islands also could be reached by airplane. On most of them you can do scuba diving and snorkeling, as well as simply enjoying your time in the beautiful beaches with white sand, sun and clear blue water. Ships set off to the island and back at least once a day, but it is recommended to find accommodation on your chosen island and stay there overnight in order to enjoy it to the fullest. Schedules change during the year and updated versions can be found here: http://www.kotsu-okinawa.org/en/index_ferry.html
Most ships depart from Tomarin pier. Some islands (like Naganta island) can be reached in as quickly as 20 minutes from there (special tour of Tokashiki company is available for this destination, departing 3 times a day from July to September and once a day from April to June, the round-trip price varies from 2900 yen to 4400 yen for children and from 3900 yen to 5400 yen for adults).
Kerama Islands are the group of islands, most popular with tourists. They are located only 30 km distance from Okinawa’s main island. The top three most popular are Tokashiki, Aka island (Akajima) and Zamami.
One can experience kayaking, snorkeling, scuba diving and other kinds of water sports on Tokashiki Island. After you arrive at the pier, there are two main destinations, where you can go: Aharen beach or Tokashiku beach. Aharen Beach is more commercial and you can borrow any equipment that you need for your leisure here. Tokashiku beach is the less popular one, but you can observe turtles here.
The landscape on the island is mountainous and full of nature. This place is a paradise for beach lovers: white sand, blue sea, colorful fish and very kind locals.
Access: you can reach Tokashiki Island from Tomarin pier by a regular ferry (takes 70 minutes, round trip costs 3080 yen for adults and 1540 for children) or the express liner (takes 30 minutes, round trip costs 4620 yen and 2320 yen).
Chiraumi Aquarium and Ocean Expo
Chiraumi Aquarium is a part of an Ocean Expo Park. Other facilities include, Tropical and Subtropical Arboretum (entrance free), Native Okinawan Village (entrance free), Oceanic Culture Museum (170 yen adults, 50 yen children), Main Rest House (Chiraumi Plaza, entrance free), Dolphin Lagoon (observation free, feeding dolphins 500 yen), Okichan Theater (shows with whales and dolphins, entrance free) and Sea Turtle Pool. If you are interested in all of the above, be ready to spend at least half a day at this site as there’s lots to see and do. It is also definitely worthwhile getting an access pass to Emerald Beach as well. Tropical and subtropical arboretum features 3-D Flowerbeds of different shapes and colors. There are also different educational programs about nature for children, such as plant crafts and ground golf. Visiting Native Okinawan Village gives you the opportunity to experience a journey back in time into traditional Okinawan Village and to enjoy Omoro Arboretum.
Chiraumi Aquarium is one of the most popular tourist spots in Okinawa besides its beach areas. Its area is approximately 10,000 m2.
This aquarium is one of the biggest in Japan and it features one of the world’s largest tanks (its capacity is 7,500 m3). The Kuroshio Sea tank includes 16,000 creatures of 70 species. From the Aqua Room you can even observe the tank from underneath the tank. Here you can see gigantic whale sharks and mantas, you can also experience a great view of the coral sea, touch coral reefs, watch whale sharks being fed, observe deep sea creatures and ocean planetarium and learn about sharks in the shark research lab.
Access. The most convenient way would be to join one of the many tours visiting this aquarium. Alternatively, you can go by bus from Naha Bus Terminal to Nago Bus Terminal (buses No 111, 20, 120) and change there to the bus (No 65, 66, 70) stopping at Kinen Koen. The regular entrance fee is 1850 yen for adults and 610 yen for children (1230 yen for high-schoolers). After 16:00 discounted tickets are available at the price of 1480 yen and 490 yen (980 yen) accordingly.
Cape Maeda (Maeda Misaki in Japanese)
Cape Maeda is an amazing place to enjoy what Okinawa’s amazing climate has to offer. With a beautiful view to the Ocean, a nice beach and comfortable facilities, Cape Maeda is one of the most popular places for diving, snorkeling and doing other water sports. Its scenery is also breath-taking with clear blue waters, amazing corals and beautiful caves. There are many companies offering their snorkeling and diving tours, many provide instructions in English as well. Even if you are a beginner or cannot swim, or if you are with children, there are several options available for you. At least one-day prior reservation is requested for most of the activities, so please contact the organizers and explain your requests. As an example, the Natural Blue company (http://www.natural-blue.net/language/en.html) offers a combination tour of snorkeling and diving for very beginners twice a day (7 am and 1 pm) with a discount price of 10,000 yen. English speaking instructors will answer to all of your concerns. Chinese and Korean tours are also available. They also take pictures for you and provide you with food to feed the sea-animals. The time required for these activities ranges from 1,5 to 2,5 hours.
In the 15th century, a group of islands that are known today as Okinawa were joined under Ryukyu-Kingdom. During this period, Ryukyu culture flourished. Having a great impact on the other Japanese regions culture, traces of contact with Taiwanese and Chinese cultures could be observed here.
Ryukyu-mura is a traditional cultural property complex build to commemorate this history. Here you can experience (renting Japanese traditional costume), observe (through different entertainment shows and theaters) and gain a deeper understanding of the culture of old Okinawa. Admission fee is 1200 yen for adults and 600 yen for children.
Sightseeing spots in Chatan include Mihama American Village, Araha Park, Sunset Beach, Miyagi Cost, Chatan Park and Chula-U hot spring. American Village is a town, where the blend of American culture into Okinawan can be observed. You can enjoy the beach area (Sunset beach), shopping (Depot) and entertainment facilities (Ferris wheel) there. Most importantly, you can experience a different kind of Okinawan culture. This is also the area where US military bases are located.
Terme Villa Chula-U (natural onsen hot spring)
If you are in Chatan, Chula-U Onsen is definitely a place you need to visit. It is a popular natural hot-spring in Okinawa, gushing forth from 1,400 meters underground and the facilities there will exceed the expectations of any traveler. There is an outdoor and an indoor area. The indoor area is a place for traditional Japanese hot spring baths, which is said to be good for health. It is segregated into a men’s and women’s bathing area. The outside area has 3 different sizes of pools: one for adults, the other one for children and the third using hot spring water. Sunset beach can also be directly accessed from this facility. There are 2 saunas outside and inside. At the entrance, you can find a foot bath, which can be used free of charge. The entrance to the facility itself ranges from 300 yen to 1300 yen depending on the time and whether you are buying a ticket for a child, senior or adult.