Okinawa For First-Time Visitors

First Time Visitor to Okinawa Island

You may have heard of Okinawa Island in Japan, but only a few people have visited this beautiful paradise island known as the Hawaii of Japan. Okinawa is located about 640 kilometres south of Japan and is connected by flight.

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

Okinawa For First-Time Visitors

Okinawa is also home to some of the most beautiful national parks, scuba diving sites and fantastic 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.

Aerial View of Okinawa
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 Malaysia has no direct flights to Okinawa. But not all is lost, as you can connect with just two flights from Kuala Lumpur. Around four leading airlines service the Okinawa route from Kuala Lumpur.

However, on 22 January 2020, AirAsia X opened a connecting flight to Okinawa via Taipei, and because of the Covid 19 pandemic, the airline temporarily suspended the route. But the news is that Okinawa direct flights from Malaysia will restart in 2023.

An average flight to Okinawa takes 10 to 11 hours from Kuala Lumpur. This includes the transit time, as you will have to make a stop before connecting to Okinawa. However, faster flights sell out fast, so you must book this flight well ahead.

Otherwise, other flights may take 15 to 24 hours, and you must spend a night when you transmit. Flights are relatively inexpensive, as the cheapest I found online is around RM2,000 to RM2,500 for a return ticket.

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 methods include transit in Bangkok, Shanghai or Hong Kong. But please note that your travel day will take up to one full day of flights and transits.

If you plan a 4D/3N trip, you should wait because two days will be spent just travelling. I recommend spending at least six to seven days on a trip to Okinawa. This way, you can really enjoy exploring this beautiful Japanese island. 

Beach at Okinawa
One of the most 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 inhabited by people. The main island is divided into three sections, north, central and south.

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

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

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

The other island regions include Kerama Island, closest to Okinawa main island, Kume Island, Miyako Islands and Yaeyama Islands. Kerama and Kume Islands are only accessible via ferries, which take 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 means you should plan your Okinawa trip months ahead to get better prices and availability for flights, ferries and rooms.

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

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

Kokusaidori Naha Okinawa
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 many travellers ask is what you can do on this beautiful island. Let me narrow this list to make it easy for first-time visitors here. You will want to see the island's best and most popular places.

While Okinawa is well known for beaches, scuba diving, Ecotourism, culture and the fantastic Japanese island food, you will need help deciding 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. The combination of beach, island and city life makes this place optimum for 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 - In the Shuri area, you will find the historical side of Okinawa, where the Ryukyu Kingdom ruled. Several historical sites are seen here, including the Shurijo Castle Park, a World Heritage Site.

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

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

American Village - This is the most modern lifestyle area of Okinawa, Mihama American Village. You can find everything American here, including cafes, restaurants and even an American shopping mall. The famous Sunset Beach is also located around here.

Sakaemachi Arcade - If you want to explore a 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 excellent local Japanese food, coffee joints and even small local bars in this area. Again, this is a reminder that Sakaemachi Arcade is raw and not your local Shinsaibashi or Shibuya.

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

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

Snorkelling - Cape Maeda and Odo Kaigan are the two most famous spots to do this for those into snorkelling. However, it may take some travelling to get to both places, but the rewards are simply out of this world.

Parks and Mountains - Eco lovers will find three national parks around Okinawa: 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 here.

Food and Culture - Generally, you can find this throughout the main island, as the Okinawa food culture is well spread. The one must-try dish is the Okinawa Soba and Okinawa Sea Grapes or Imu Budo. There are many other popular dishes for the food traveller to discover around here.

Festivals in Okinawa - Five main festivals tend to attract many visitors who are;

  1. Hari Festival - Early June
  2. Yaeyama Beach Opening Festival - Mid-March
  3. Eisa Dance Festival - August or September
  4. Pantu Festival of Miyakojima - September, but announced last minute
  5. Shuri Castle Festival - End of October

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

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

How to move around Naha and Okinawa

This is crucial for those who travel independently and require moving around Naha and Okinawa. In any city, there are always trains, taxis and buses which provide transportation solutions. But here in Okinawa, you should consider what is being offered.

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

This monorail system opened in 2003 and runs for almost 13 kilometres long. There have been plans to expand this monorail system, but there needs to be more information on this. On the bright side, you can easily travel around Naha using the Yui Rail.

Monorail Map Okinawa
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 tourists.

Buses - Other ways of travelling around Naha or Okinawa include the excellent bus service. Various bus companies 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 travellers, you can always rent a motorbike or car and self-ride or drive around Okinawa. Those who plan to do this must take high importance to the Japanese driving culture and laws here and, most importantly, have an international driving license. Malaysians need to get this before they attempt to rent a car, and you need more than your Malaysian driving licence.

Taxis - Around the central city area, a Japanese taxi can be one of the quick ways to get somewhere. But here is the fun part: The cabs in Okinawa are less expensive than Tokyo or Osaka, so you can consider this if you are in a rush.

Bicycles - Finally, for those who want an easy way to explore Naha city, there are several bicycle rentals where you can pedal power around Naha.

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

Where to stay in Okinawa?

For first-timers, you should stay around the Naha area, which is the capital of Okinawa and the central city. The international airport is also located in this part of Okinawa, southwest of the island.

In Okinawa, hundreds of hotels, resorts, Ryokan and even budget accommodations are available, depending on the type of place you want to stay at.

Best to book ahead for reasonable prices, as last-minute bookings are always on the higher side.

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

Best time to visit Okinawa

The best time to visit Okinawa is during summer, but the island can be seen throughout the year. During the summer, many Japanese flocks here as an alternative to Hawaii.

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

Conclusion on Okinawa For First-Time Visitors

Many websites and portals offer information on Okinawa, some are accurate, and some are just for website clicks.

For detailed and precise information, I strongly recommend you visit the official Okinawa Tourism website, which is the national tourism board.

Malaysia Asia

Blogging since 2007, but writing online since 1997. I belong to the 1st generation of worldwide bloggers, which is of course old-school. Since 2008, I created Malaysia Asia and this travel, flood, gadget and lifestyle blog has won numerous physical awards from tourism boards around Malaysia. (Not those online awards). After 12 years of blogging, I have semi-retired and now blog about things I like, do product reviews and enjoy life. My work has been featured in Lonely Planet, CNN Travel, Yahoo Travel, Wall Street Journal, and many other international publications. Find out more about me and thank you.

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