When people dream of visiting an island paradise, rarely do their minds drift beyond the possibilities of the South Pacific or the Caribbean. So here’s another possibility, with just as many beaches and tropical fruits, and some impressively good chocolates: Okinawa, Japan.
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Where Is Okinawa & When To Visit?
Let’s start with the basics: Okinawa is the southernmost prefecture of Japan. Situated just a three hour flight south of Tokyo (or just over 2 hours from Seoul), Okinawa’s capitol city of Naha is the place to be during Japan’s hot summers. It’s hard to go wrong in such an interesting country.
But if you’re looking to avoid Japan’s famous crowds and still be able to enjoy the perks of an island getaway, head into Naha during January or February. It’s basically springtime weather in Japan, except in the dead of winter.
Okinawa’s main island (also called Okinawa) is big, but can be super easy to navigate, especially if you download a few travel apps before arriving. Naha’s downtown area is relatively quiet and has lots of bars to choose from when you’re looking to go out, or markets to shop in when you’re looking to ball out. Not to turn this into a complete Okinawa travel blog, but our first moments of 2018 were actually spent in an American bar on Naha’s Kokusai Dori (Pub Street).
Even though we were jet-lagged, we still got our party poppers!
Despite the American bars lining downtown, there still aren’t many non-Japanese people living on or visiting the island, other than those in the US military (though there is a fair number of those). So if you don’t look Japanese then expect some strange looks during your visit, and maybe a bit of staring. It’s all in plain curiosity.
But consider yourself warned: you will be an anomaly, especially if you visit at the peak of Japanese tourism from June to August. So allow me to entice you to visit Okinawa in the off-season between October and April, for lower prices and limited crowds. Here’s our basic itinerary, as seen through my snazzy new camera.
Okinawa Itinerary: 5 Days
Spending 5 days in Okinawa is the perfect way to get a feel for the island group, and if you’re visiting Japan in the winter, then it’s also the perfect way to get a different perspective on the country’s many micro-climates. In this 5 day Okinawa itinerary, I’ll take you around the southern half of the main island, and on a day trip to one of the smaller islands off the shore.
This schedule assumes you arrive either early in the morning or late in the evening, and that you’re trying to travel Okinawa without a car. It offers the perfect balance of tropical island life, beach time, and traditional Japanese culture.
Arrival At Naha Airport
The hub of Okinawa, despite being in the south of the main island of Japan, Naha Airport is where all international flights will arrive. Busy markets and short white houses guide the vibe here, while Buddhist temples and gardens fill every space with color.
Arriving at Naha International Airport, take the bus from Kokusai Senryokaku Terminal towards the north (look for this: 那覇～名護), going 18 stops to arrive at Nago Shiyakushomae Bus Stop. This will take 2 hours. If you arrive really late at night, I’d advise spending the night near Naha Airport first, and taking this trip first thing in the morning.
2 Days in Nago
Nago Travel Highlights: Emerald Beach, Nago Pineapple Park, and the Tropical Dream Center Gardens.
Just like with any other new city, the first thing you should do is check into your Nago hotel or hostel. If you’re not doing an Okinawa self drive, then make sure you choose a spot near the bus terminal so that it’s easy to get around the entire island. Nago is most famous for its pineapples and the massive Churaumi Aquarium.
Stay in central Nago if you don’t have a car, or on the west coast of the city if you do. Nago itself doesn’t have a large downtown area, but it does have decent public transportation and a large selection of restaurants. Once you arrive, walk around the area where you’re staying and get acquainted with the quaintness.
Day 1 Afternoon: Nago Pineapple Park
Though the beach is so very blue, in the winter it’s still too cold to swim in. There is still scuba diving in the area, but it’s a bit too cold for stand up paddle boarding or snorkeling without a wet suit. So the Pineapple Park would be my first stop on a free afternoon, with its child-sized self-driving pineapples, orchids everywhere, and a bevy of samples.
We bought lots of full-sized sweets, and enjoyed all the beautiful orchids blooming everywhere. A good alternative in pineapple off-season (wintertime) is Fruits Land; it’s right next to Pineapple Park.
Day 1 Evening & Night
Once you’ve had your fill of the fruits, head over to the Tropical Dream Center Gardens for a look at all of the beautiful and useful plants they can & do grow on the island. It’s open every day until 7pm, and after watching sunset from the top of the tower, you can head back to your hostel and grab dinner.
During low season you’ll want to eat earlier rather than later, as many restaurants are closed all winter.
Day 2 Morning & Afternoon: Churaumi Aquarium
Visiting Churaumi Aquarium was one of the highlights of our trip in Okinawa, especially since I hadn’t been to an aquarium since I was a kid. The biggest tip I have is to arrive at 8:15 before it opens and walk in right at 8:30 with your ticket in hand. This is how we were able to see all the attractions with maybe a dozen other people, and snag a table next to the whale shark tank for optimal selfies.
And this was during our first trip, in the wintertime.
Kids were oohing and ahhhing all over the place, and sometimes we felt like we were leading a tour group. We always saw massive crowds entering when we left an exhibit, managing to hit anywhere between 30 and 5 minutes before the crowd at each exhibit and the beach. Sometimes it felt like we were inadvertently leading an Asian tour group on a lag. This is exceedingly kid-friendly. From Churaumi, walk down the beach and soak in some rays before grabbing lunch.
The most fun exhibits for us were the whale sharks, bioluminescent jelly fish, and the dolphin show.
Day 2 Evening: Todoroki Waterfall & Nago Castle
While it’s still daytime, take the bus from Churaumi after lunch, heading directly towards Todoroki Waterfall. This gorgeous natural body of water is the perfect spot to cool off during the Okinawan summer, and a lovely place to enjoy Okinawan nature outside of the beaches.
Head back downtown once you’ve gotten your fill of water activities, and watch sunset from the park. Since it’s such a popular spot, you’re sure to find a restaurant open nearby for dinner.
Day 3 Morning: Check Out
After leaving your accommodations the next morning, grab a bus heading towards Chatan American Village.
3 Days in Naha
Naha Travel Highlights: Makishi Market, Shuri Castle, and Fukyushu-en Gardens.
Busy markets and short white houses guide the vibe in Naha, while Buddhist temples and gardens fill every space with color. But since Nago and Naha are a solid 2 hours apart, on the way back down to Okinawa’s capitol city I recommend stopping in Chatan. This small outpost is well-known by American ex-pats since it’s extremely close to the American military base in Okinawa.
Day 3 Afternoon: Chatan American Village
Forced to merely pass through American Village after thinking that it was a massive community of Americans largely ignoring Japanese culture, we instantly regretted it. During January, the coastal town of Chatan is like the US’s Cape Cod area in the springtime, but the heat hits hard in the summer months.
If you rent a car as we did during our first trip to Okinawa, be sure to stop in at Timeless Chocolate, the island’s first bean-to-bar chocolate maker. Grab a coffee or hot chocolate while looking right out over the ocean. We managed to pass through the area both on our way up the coast, and on our way back down.
Depending on how early you arrive & depart, be sure to check out Timeless Chocolate Maker, the ferris wheel, and catch a sunset over the pier.
Day 3 Evening & Night: Downtown Naha
Checking into your hotel of hostel in Naha, drop your bags and head straight for the downtown stretch. Look for a hostel as close to the city center as possible, as the downtown area is very navigable by foot, but still rather large. Our favorite market area in downtown Naha is along Kokusai Dori (Pub Street), and it’s hard to miss!
Day 4: Day Trip Off The Coast
Most people never make it off the main island of Okinawa, but there are a number of tiny islands just off the coast. The most popular island to visit from Naha is Tokashiki Island, which is just a one hour ferry ride from the city’s main port. Tokashiki Island is famous for its scuba diving sites, but it’s also popular with snorkelers, and anyone who loves a flawless white sand beach.
If you’re interested in visiting one of the islands closer to Nago, simply make this Okinawa day trip on day 2 instead of day 4.
Day 5: Naha’s Main Attractions
Assuming you’re leaving late at night on day 5 or early the next morning, we’ll stay in town on your last of these 5 days in Okinawa. Today you’ll start at Shurijo Castle, a historic park just a 20 minute metro ride from downtown Naha.
After making your way back from the grounds of Shurijo Castle, your next stop is back in downtown Naha, at First Makishi Public Market. This is a great spot to grab lunch and then walk around looking at all of the local seafood options and local foods. Unlike most of the markets in Naha, this one isn’t focused only on souvenirs!
But if food markets aren’t your thing, just walking around Naha is still a beautiful sight. Very few buildings are much taller than 5 stories (unlike in bustling but beautiful Tokyo), making it quite the unique place in Japan.
One day while walking from our hotel to the downtown area to catch the metro, we got a big surprise— check out these real-life Mario Cart racing! The catch is, you need an international drivers’ licence before you can go out on the open road in these babies. Also, keep in mind that they drive on the left in Japan.
After leaving behind those speed racers in the downtown area, make your way over to the Fukyushen Gardens and Temple. Ahhh, bliss. This is a serve spot off the main drag, featuring fish ponds and a traditional Buddhist Temple. Tip: go at sunset, after most everyone has left; they’re open ’til 6.
After walking around Fukyushen for a bit, head back to the main strip and grab dinner before heading to the airport or back to your hotel to prepare for departure.
Okinawa Travel: Practical Info
Best Time to Visit Okinawa
In terms of weather, there is no bad time to visit Okinawa.
There are, however, better seasons to visit Okinawa in terms of number of other visitors and seasonal attractions. The shoulder seasons of September/October & April/May (aside from Golden Week) are the best times to visit for fewer tourists and longer hours of operation for the most popular attractions.
If you visit in summertime, June-August, you’ll find very high prices and lots of tourists, but the weather will also be very hot, and all of the Okinawa attractions will be open. It’s also peak pineapple season! Visiting from November to March is also quite nice weather-wise, but it is off-season for fruits and some hotels & restaurants will be completely closed at this time. Some attractions will also have limited hours of operation.
Okinawa Safety Level: 9/10
Just like the rest of Japan, Okinawa is an extremely safe place to travel to. But in the high season, it’s still important to keep an eye on your belongings, as the sheer volume of other visitors can be overwhelming.
Okinawa 5 Days Travel Budget
Japan is not a cheap place to travel. I’d recommend budgeting at least $100USD per day to travel Okinawa, and a little more if you’re traveling during high season. Traveling Okinawa solo will run you even a little mor eunless you’re willing to stay in hostels. Note that the current exchange rate is roughly ¥111 per $1USD.
-Transport: $60USD (assuming you’re only using public transportation; flights are so varied in cost that those are not included in this budget)
-Activities: $140USD (including day trip off the coast)
Where do you want to go first on your trip to Okinawa?
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