Naha is the principal city of the Okinawa archipelago. It is also the most populated and is the main tourist center of the entire archipelago. It boasts nice beaches, wild forests, natural preserved areas, hiking opportunities, and an active nightlife attracting both locals, Japanese tourists, and foreigners.
Naha is not my favorite place in Okinawa, but it is the ideal spot to prepare and plan further adventures to the smaller islands. The Naha port connects almost all the other islands by ferry, and the air transportation is well developed to reach the furthest islands.
Naha also hosts a big US Military base right next to the city, which can be a controversial presence.
Some information on Naha
The city of Naha is not that large, and all the attractions are condensed on a long street, named « Kokusai Dori », (international street). The street attracts all the tourists, day and night, due to its shopping venues, restaurants, and entertainment opportunities.
The airport is directly connected to this street. It takes a mere 10 minutes to go there thanks to the monorail.
There is no beach worth going to in Naha itself, but the rest of the island offers many beautiful beaches, mainly in the North and the East.
The cost of life is not that expensive (compared to ‘mainland Japan’ or the other developed islands), but it is not that cheap either (compared to others destinations in Asia). The prices are still very affordable, and the service is good. For a taxi, count 500 Yen as a starting fare. It will be enough for small to moderate journeys, but for the long rides, it’s better to either take the bus that will take you far from Naha for a small fee, or the monorail which costs around 200 Yen to travel the city. A one or two day pass also exists.
The people of Okinawa are well known for the gentleness and their friendly attitude. They differ a lot from ‘mainland’ Japanese.
In Japan, cash is mainly used, and credit cards (foreign included) are rarely used. You might get a credit card accepted at your hotel, but it is much preferable to have cash with you to pay at a restaurant, guesthouse, and other random ventures. Make sure you ask a place first if they accept credit cards to avoid any problems. Theft is rare in Japan, and they usually don’t target foreign tourists, so it’s very common for people to have a lot of cash on them.
Find a place to sleep
A lot of options exist, and they differ both in price and in atmosphere. Luxury hotels, business hotels, expensive ryokan, or cheap guesthouses are the primary options.
Most of the guesthouse are located around the Kokusai Dori. The prices and types of accommodation are similar.
Expect 1,000 Yen / night for a bed in a dormitory, 2,000 yen / night for an individual room (TV, internet, computer but usually shared bathrooms and toilets), 3,000 and 4,000 Yen / night for a more comfortable room. Generally, the guesthouse do not provide any kind of restaurant.
But where the offer differ alot, it’s in the atmosphere. Some guesthouse are very dark, dirty, and not enjoyable. Others offer clean and good accommodations, and will let you in a kind of semi-private atmosphere. Others will place you in a community, with a shared dining room and kitchen for all the residents. Usually, people gather at night to eat and drink together. There, you will mainly meet young people, both Japanese (who want a break from the very strict Japanese society) and foreigners.
The city of Naha is a bit old and a bit dirty compared to the extreme cleanliness of the rest of Japan. The same goes with the guesthouses of Naha. Don’t expect too much, knowing that the value for the money is good on average. If you happen to find yourself in one of the bad guest houses, don’t hesitate to go for another one, as you can pay on a night by night basis, and the city does not fall short of available guesthouses.
If you can cope with 5,000 Yen to 15,000 Yen per night, the hotels of Naha have average to good to excellent rooms, and even the most expensive have a good value for money. The Japanese service is always perfect.
You will find some hotels in Naha and other parts of the islands. It can be a good idea if you know what you are doing AND if you have a vehicle to be independant. In any other situation, think twice. Some hotels are located very close of a very beautiful beach, but that’s it. There’s literally nothing around. If the weather turns bad, a typhoon comes, the beach is closed, and you have nothing to do. You will end up locked in the hotel lobby, watching TV or sleeping.
Food and Restaurants
Naha offers many restaurants. You can find different types of food : Okinawa ramens, marinated porks, fried fishes, goya goya based salads, …you’ll find what you like in the rich Okinawa cuisine.
The Western, and mostly American culture, is also represented, and many steak houses can be found along the Kokusai Dori.
The prices vary according to the standard of the restaurant. You can find 400 yen ramen in a small shop, open almost 24h, eat at Yoshinoya for 350 Yen, or you can go and eat for 1,500 or 2,000 Yen a head in some more classy restaurants.
Beach & Nature
The north of the island is actually the most beautiful part of it. This is where you’ll find the paradise style beaches. Not only that, there is jungle, mountains…all you need for a change of scenery. It’s not unheard of to go for a walk in the jungle and to end in a preserved and deserted beach, and then to go snorkeling and start thinking « Am I the only man on earth ? ».
Some natural parks and a mangrove based park also offer the opportunity to discover the wild life of the island. An example of this is Gandara, which is in the southwest part of the island.
Naha is the central point of the Whole Okinawa archipelago. Two ports host the ferries to connect to all the islands around.
Two types of ferries : fast and slow, join the closest islands (15 min) and the farthest ones (3 hours or more).
Prices vary according to the destination and the season. Actually even the number of departures, and the hours of the departures vary according to the season.
Ferries are safe and on time. Actually, they are so much on time that you should not be late. Once the tie is off, late boarding won’t be allowed, even if the boat is still technically not moving and that it would only take to drop the gangway one minute to let everybody in. No exceptions are allowed. For some islands, when the ferry comes every hour, that’s not a problem. For others, when the ferry comes once a day, you’ll be kicking yourself if you are a couple minutes late.
Prices range from 2,000 yen for a roundtrip to a small island northwest of Naha (Minna Shima, a paradise on earth made of a big white sand beach and magnificient turquoise waters), to 4,000 Yen to go to the Kerama islands, or 6,000 yens for even farther islands.
Not all the islands can be connected from the main port of Naha. For exemple, the small paradise, Minna Shima, as to be reached from the Motobu port in the north part of the island.
Moving around inside Naha
If you want to stay in Naha, or if a typhoon ruined your chances of going on another island, you’ll have to find a way to go around and not just stayin the Kokusai Dori. You can rent a car (expensive) or a bike (4,000 yen for on day). You’ll need a valid license to do that.
The bicycles cost 2,000 yen a day (plus a caution) and they are enough to go very far away. You can even negotiate rental for more than one day if you want to tour the island.
Seasons & climate
Different seasons are favorable to visit Okinawa : April to May, July, October to November. The rainy season goes from May to June, and in July and August comes the typhoon season. The island is always very busy with Japanese tourists during the whole summer, because it’s always warm, and very enjoyable climate even under a light rain
The whale watching start in January until March, the coolest month of the year (around 20°C average) and also the least likely to see rain.
For those who still have the images of the huge earthquake, the subsequent tsunami, and the Fukushima disaster that took place back in March 2011 in North Japan, restreassured that won’t happen in Okinawa, which is not prone to earth quake and such tsunamis.
For those afraid of natural dangers, you have to know that in August, the typhoons can be numerous. The area shuts down when a typhoon hits. The beaches are closed, the ferries stay at dock, a lot of shops close, and there’s basically nothing to do but stay inside.
People of Okinawa are known for being friendly, and Japan is one of the safetest countries in the world. You can literaly leave your wallet on the table of a cafe and nobody will touch it. Nevertheless, drunk yakusa or drunk US marines can always occur at one time during the night. It’s a tourist destination, so keep your head on your shoulders, don’t be stupid or careless (don’t trust someone you’ve just met, don’t go swim alone in dangerous conditions…etc.).