Travel Notes on Okinawa
I never imagined a place so full of beautiful beaches with just the right amount of tourists, as in not too many. There was only one city block filled with picture taking foreigners. The rest of the island, well, it felt nice and secluded. That to me was paradise, especially when I was exploring as many beaches that I could possibly see in a week.
The airport is small yet handles a large amount people going through immigration. People form the US don’t need a preapproved visa to enter. A tourism visa is available on arrival, good for 90 days. More than enough time to explore this island.
I highly recommend getting a portable wifi router. There’s a place at the airport that rents them out for a reasonable price. Aimed specifically for foreigners, the staff there are trained to speak English. Fill out a few forms and pay in advance. They do want to look over your departure ticket, but that’s understandable. And when you’re back at the airport, it’s a quick lookover when you drop it off. Just look for the sign (there’s only one place) and if you happen to arrive outside their times, there’s a drop off box. Pretty convenient!
I wouldn’t recommend relying on the Yui Rail system here. It will limit your options on where to stay. And if you’re looking to get to the beach, you will end up relying on other means, i.e. buses or taxis.
What you will want to do is rent a car. Yes, it’s possible for you to rent one in Japan. In fact, it’s actually easier for foreigners to rent in Okinawa than say in Tokyo. It boils down to the complexity of driving in a metropolis versus an island. All you need to do is get an international driving permit, which means a trip to AAA, paying around $20, and leaving with the permit valid for a year. Now here’s the hard part, finding a rental car company.
My tip here, use the local agencies. Your Google search will list several. I unfortunately used the only US one that had a familiar name, Budget rental.
There was no one there at the rental car area. And all the buses picking up soon-to-be-car-renters were the other companies and not one for Budget. I had to call them to arrange pickup. As you can see that meant an international call which meant a trip back inside to make a call from a payphone. Not the most fun thing to do while carting around your luggage. But after the pick up and signing the papers at the rental office, it was into the car. Now, that tip earlier about getting the portable wifi router, it paid off as I routed my way to my AirBnb. Woot!
Driving does take a bit to get used to. You drive on the left hand side and sit in the right side of the car. You can imagine what muscle memory does to you. My windshield wipers were constantly on when I made turns. Yeah, I was more focused on staying in the correct lane than applying proper driving ettiqute. I can say, I only went down the wrong side of the street once. Here’s the thing, there’s not too much traffic on the island. So that accidental wrong side of the road happened with no cars in that lane. Lucky me.
If you decide on driving make sure you study the traffic laws and signs. There are some unique things you would do when making right turns. This site has all the material you’ll need http://www.okinawa-information.com/driving-okinawa-japan.
Oh the beaches. There’s so many to visit. If one’s too crowded just drive to another. Just know not all of them have a lifeguard and parking may be a challenge. Otherwise, you can stick with advertised ones to be safe. No harm there. Don’t miss out on visiting the other islands though. Those beaches are pristine and when I go back, I’ll visit more of them.
To get to the other islands you will want to get to Tomari Port. They have multiple ferries that go out to a number of islands. The express ones are usually sold out quickly, so get them before hand or arrive early. Timing does make a difference for a day trip. Plan ahead. But once you get there and get in the water, you will be so rewarded.
What you need to remember about Okinawa is that it historically doesn’t identify itself with Japan. So even though the foods have similar ingredients, you don’t want to come here expecting the same foods from mainland Japan. Don’t get me wrong, you will find it. But since you’re here, why not try the local foods. One that has a history of its very own.
Here’s my take on a few, which you can read more about in http://thehungryox.com/category/japan/okinawa/.
When you’re going online to research restaurants, stay away from the sites like Tripadvisor and Yelp. Unless you think A&W Root Beer restaurant is in fact a top ten choice. No? Then check out http://tabelog.com/en. Most of it is in Japanese, but look for the reviews in English. Not only because you can understand it, but there are pointers on whetherthe staff speaks English or better yet, is foreigner friendly. Yeah, that’s a big thing to make sure of. Some places aren’t setup to take on tourists.
Things You Should Know
English will get you by in most areas. With the U.S. military base, it’s almost a must for the locals to know some English and along with the rise in tourism. However, that did instill some defensiveness on the culture. There are establishments that cater to locals only, something not surprising in Japan. But being on such a small island, you have a better chance running into a restaurant that may turn you away.